Iranian Hackers Spent Three Years Quietly Attacking 2,000 U.S. Computers

They seem to be getting better and better at infiltrating U.S. systems — and intelligence officials have noticed.

National Journal
Marina Koren
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Marina Koren
May 29, 2014, 7:45 a.m.

It was the “most elab­or­ate so­cial-en­gin­eer­ing cam­paign” these se­cur­ity re­search­ers had ever seen.

A new re­port from iSight Part­ners, a Dal­las-based com­puter-se­cur­ity firm, ex­posed on Thursday a three-year cyberes­pi­on­age cam­paign car­ried out by Ir­a­ni­an hack­ers. The di­git­al at­tacks, which in­fec­ted about 2,000 U.S. per­son­al com­puters since 2011, tar­geted mem­bers of the U.S. mil­it­ary and Con­gress, as well as dip­lo­mats, lob­by­ists, and Wash­ing­ton-based journ­al­ists.

The long-term cam­paign, dubbed “News­caster” by the se­cur­ity firm, em­ployed a dozen fake so­cial-me­dia ac­counts on sites such as Face­book, Twit­ter, and Linked­In. Hack­ers sent tar­gets links that, when ac­cessed, would un­leash mal­ware. They dir­ec­ted people to fake lo­gin screens to steal their user names and pass­words. They im­per­son­ated journ­al­ists and de­fense con­tract­ors, and even set up a fake news web­site to lure vic­tims.

All signs poin­ted to Ir­an as the source. Nicole Per­l­roth writes in The New York Times:

There were many clues. The fake News­On­Air.org web­site was re­gistered in Tehran and sites that hack­ers used to de­ploy their mal­ware were also hos­ted in Ir­an. The mal­ware that the hack­ers used con­tained sev­er­al Per­sian words. The time stamps of hack­ers’ activ­ity tracked with pro­fes­sion­al work­ing hours in Tehran. They even took the day off on Ir­a­ni­an week­ends and hol­i­days.

An­oth­er tell­tale sign, re­search­ers said, was the con­tent the hack­ers pos­ted on their per­so­nas’ so­cial me­dia. In some cases, they pos­ted Ir­a­ni­an jokes to their Face­book pages. One hack­er used a Face­book page to ask fol­low­ers, “What’s kind of sanc­tion will lead to un­der­min­ing the Ir­a­ni­an na­tion?”

It’s un­clear ex­actly what in­form­a­tion these hack­ers stole. But the fact that such a highly co­ordin­ated at­tack went un­noticed for sev­er­al years sug­gests that the tech­nic­al skills of Ir­a­ni­an hack­ers, usu­ally out­done by far-su­per­i­or Chinese and Rus­si­an hack­ers, are im­prov­ing. This time last year, a wave of at­tacks tar­get­ing Amer­ic­an en­ergy com­pan­ies was traced to Ir­an. Back then, U.S. in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials were already wor­ried about Ir­a­ni­an hack­ers’ grow­ing tal­ents.

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