Security Firms Warn to Not Underestimate Iranian Hackers

FireEye and ClearSky both warn that Iranian hackers are having a great deal of success in their operations, and the U.S. needs to track them more closely.


Attackers promoting Iran’s political agenda have become increasingly sophisticated in their attacks, eliciting a warning from security firms that the nation is rapidly becoming an online powerhouse.

Last month, for example, attacks attributed to Iranian agents exploited an MS Office vulnerability a week after it was patched by Microsoft, advanced-threat protection firm FireEye stated in a Dec. 7 analysis of the attack. The attack, targeting a government organization in the Middle East, appears to have been conducted by a suspected Iranian cyber-espionage threat group, known as APT34, according to FireEye.

APT34, which corresponds to a campaign of attacks publicly attributed to the “OilRig” group, is a  cyber-espionage operation with a history of focusing on goals that align with Iran’s political agenda, FireEye said. The groups linked to the nation tend to have their own way of accomplishing those goals, Fred Plan, senior analyst with FireEye, told eWEEK.

“One thing that sets the Iranian cyber-espionage groups apart is they are not that reliant on technical solutions,” he said. “They do not—like the Chinese and Russians—have a pile of zero days. They do a lot more basic social engineering.”

Predictably, as nation-states continue to conduct espionage over the internet, both the breadth of the campaigns and the variety of actors have increased. Over the past three years, attacks coming from North Korea have become more sophisticated, while at the same time, more visible. And, while U.S. defenders have focused on Chinese attacks targeting intellectual property, that focus has given way to concerns raised by the disinformation operations conducted by Russia, following the 2016 elections.

In December, Israeli cyber-security consultancy ClearSky Cyber Security placed a number of attacks against human-right activists and media organizations at the feet of Iranian attackers as well.

With Iran and Saudi Arabia in conflict in the Middle East, the nation—like other countries targeting their geopolitical rivals—has taken its espionage operations online. While North Korean agents are unlikely to operate outside of the governments wishes, two broad Iranian groups seem to be conducting attacks—agents of the government and patriotic hackers, FireEye’s Plan said.

“In the case of North Korea, they have a pretty tight grip on anything that is happening in their country, so we don’t see much independent activity,” Plan said. “In the case of Iran, it is slightly more similar to China and Russia—there is a spectrum of activity and many different actor groups. Some are very closely tied to what the government is doing, while others are nationalistic actors that get together and have a particular set of skills.”

APT34 has conducted a variety of operations in the Middle East targeting critical industries, such as the financial, government, energy, chemical and telecommunications sectors. The attackers used a spearphishing campaign along with the MS Office vulnerability to install malware based on the PowerShell administration tool.

The speed at which the APT34 group has been able to turn vulnerabilities into exploit code impressed FireEye. “Recent activity by APT34 demonstrates that they are a capable group with potential access to their own development resources,” the company stated in its analysis. “During the past few months, APT34 has been able to quickly incorporate exploits for at least two publicly vulnerabilities.”

Robert Lemos

Robert Lemos

Robert Lemos is an award-winning freelance journalist who has covered information security, cybercrime and technology's impact on society for almost two decades. A former research engineer, he's...