Iranian Groups Conducting Sophisticated Surveillance On Middle Eastern Targets

Two groups have been using backdoor threats to spy on targeted individuals, Symantec says.

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Two groups, most likely based out of Iran, have been conducting a sophisticated cyber surveillance campaign targeting individuals and entities inside Iran and abroad since July 2014, and possibly as early as 2011, according to Symantec.

Symantec, which issued an alert on the campaigns this week, stated the groups were exploiting custom-made backdoors to steal information from the devices of specific targets.

Symantec has named the groups Cadelle and Chafer. According to the company, the two groups -- which appear to have five to 10 members apiece -- are likely connected to each other or may be working for the same entity. Their victims may be of interest to a nation-state actor, Symantec said.

Cadelle has been observed using a Trojan dubbed Cadelspy, while the Chafer group has been using Trojans dubbed Remexi and Remexi.B.

Most of the targets of these two campaigns are individuals located inside Iran, Symantec researchers state, based upon the fact that the targets are customers of Iranian service providers and cloud hosting providers. Many of the victims are individuals using anonymous proxy services to access the Internet. Often, the people who use such services are dissidents, researchers, and activists trying to access sites that are blocked by the Iranian government, Symantec said.

The two groups have also targeted airline companies and telecommunications companies in the Middle East and nearby countries, presumably in a bid to monitor the communications and movements of the targeted individuals. Most of the targeted organizations have been based in countries like Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, but at least one victim organization is located in the U.S.

It’s unclear what infection vector the Cadelle group uses, Symantec said, but Chafer has been using SQL injection attacks on web servers to compromise the computers of its victims and drop the Remexi Trojan on their systems to steal usernames, passwords, and other data.

One reason why the two groups appear to be connected is that their respective malicious tools of choice show up in the same places.  “A number of computers experienced both Cadelspy and Remexi infections within a small time window,” said Symantec. “In one instance, a computer was compromised with Backdoor.Cadelspy just minutes after being infected with Backdoor.Remexi.”

The kinds of systems the two groups have infected include file and database servers and systems belonging to web developers. One of the targeted systems ran a SIM card editing application.

Both groups appear to be in the same geography and have the same working hours. So far though, there has been no sharing of command-and-control infrastructure between them.

This is not the first time that security vendors have observed sophisticated surveillance campaigns being conducted by Iranian groups against Iranian individuals and organizations both inside and outside the country.

Last December, security vendor Cylance warned about an Iranian hacker group dubbed Operation Cleaver that it believed had infiltrated computers at some 50 critical infrastructure organizations in 16 countries.

According to Cylance, the group’s victims included entities in the energy sector, oil and natural gas industry, transportation sector, technology firms, and telecommunications companies. About 10 of Operation Cleaver’s victims were based in the U.S.

About the Author(s)

Jai Vijayan, Contributing Writer

Jai Vijayan is a seasoned technology reporter with over 20 years of experience in IT trade journalism. He was most recently a Senior Editor at Computerworld, where he covered information security and data privacy issues for the publication. Over the course of his 20-year career at Computerworld, Jai also covered a variety of other technology topics, including big data, Hadoop, Internet of Things, e-voting, and data analytics. Prior to Computerworld, Jai covered technology issues for The Economic Times in Bangalore, India. Jai has a Master's degree in Statistics and lives in Naperville, Ill.

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