Endpoint

8/27/2018
06:00 PM
Connect Directly
Twitter
LinkedIn
Google+
RSS
E-Mail
50%
50%

Iranian Hackers Target Universities in Global Cyberattack Campaign

Cobalt Dickens threat group is suspected to be behind a large-scale cyberattack wave targeting credentials to access academic resources.

The school year has barely begun and things are off to a rocky start for some colleges: Cobalt Dickens, a threat group linked to the Iranian government, has been spotted targeting universities worldwide in a large-scale credential theft campaign.

Researchers in Secureworks' Counter Threat Unit (CTU) uncovered the cyberattacks after initially spotting an URL spoofing a university login page. Further analysis on the IP address hosting the page revealed a massive attack involving 16 domains with more than 300 spoofed websites and login pages for 76 universities across 14 countries.

Attackers targeted schools in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, China, Israel, Japan, and Turkey, among others. The largest concentration of affected universities was in the US. Researchers did not disclose which were targeted but are working to alert them, they report.

Victims who entered their credentials on a fake login page were redirected to the school's legitimate website, where they were either logged into a valid browsing session or prompted to enter their username and password a second time. Several domains referred to the target institution's online library systems, a sign of attackers trying to access academic resources.

Most domains in this campaign were tied to the same IP address and DNS name server. One domain, registered in May 2018, contained subdomains designed to spoof university targets and redirect visitors to fake login pages on other domains controlled by the attackers.

Many of the spoofed domains were registered between May and August 2018; the most recent was created on August 19. It seems threat actors were still building infrastructure to support the campaign at the time Secureworks' CTU found it, researchers report in a blog post.

This campaign shared infrastructure with earlier Cobalt Dickens attacks on academic resources, a popular target for the threat group. In a previous campaign, its actors created lookalike domains to phish targets and used stolen credentials to steal intellectual property (IP).

"Cobalt Dickens' motivation is to obtain access to subscriber-only academic resources as well as mailboxes of university staff and students," says Rafe Pilling, information security researcher with the Secureworks CTU, of the August campaign. "Revenue generation is likely a key motivator, but the resulting access could be used for other campaigns like onward phishing and intrusion against targets that might implicitly trust contacts linked to educational institutions." However, he notes, there has so far been no observation of this type of activity.

There are several reasons why universities are hot targets for attackers seeking IP. For starters, they're harder to secure than financial companies, healthcare organizations, and other institutions in more regulated industries. They also attract some of the world's most intelligent researchers and students, making them treasure troves of new ideas and information.

Post-Indictments

Earlier this year, the US Department of Justice indicted the Mabna Institute and nine Iranians for their involvement with Cobalt Dickens activity conducted between 2013 and 2017.

Many threat groups stick with their tactics despite disclosures like these, and CTU says the August activity could be a sign the group is continuing its campaigns despite its members' indictments.

"This activity aligns with Cobalt Dickens' previous MO," says Pilling of the May-August campaign. "Based on our investigation, they haven't seemed to have modified their tactics significantly when compared to the campaign they've been running over the past few years."

"If it ain't broke … ' as the saying goes," he adds.

Pilling anticipates the activity will continue as the indictments by the DoJ don't appear to have been a strong deterrent. The basic rules of security hygiene apply: phishing awareness is key to defending against this type of activity, he says, and users should be educated on what to look for and to avoid entering their credentials in a site linked within an email.

"Any email that wants you to click a link and enter credentials should be considered suspect," he says.

Related Content:

Kelly Sheridan is the Staff Editor at Dark Reading, where she focuses on cybersecurity news and analysis. She is a business technology journalist who previously reported for InformationWeek, where she covered Microsoft, and Insurance & Technology, where she covered financial ... View Full Bio

Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Comments
Newest First  |  Oldest First  |  Threaded View
'PowerSnitch' Hacks Androids via Power Banks
Kelly Jackson Higgins, Executive Editor at Dark Reading,  12/8/2018
The Case for a Human Security Officer
Ira Winkler, CISSP, President, Secure Mentem,  12/5/2018
Windows 10 Security Questions Prove Easy for Attackers to Exploit
Kelly Sheridan, Staff Editor, Dark Reading,  12/5/2018
Register for Dark Reading Newsletters
White Papers
Video
Cartoon Contest
Write a Caption, Win a Starbucks Card! Click Here
Latest Comment: This comment is waiting for review by our moderators.
Current Issue
10 Best Practices That Could Reshape Your IT Security Department
This Dark Reading Tech Digest, explores ten best practices that could reshape IT security departments.
Flash Poll
Twitter Feed
Dark Reading - Bug Report
Bug Report
Enterprise Vulnerabilities
From DHS/US-CERT's National Vulnerability Database
CVE-2018-8651
PUBLISHED: 2018-12-12
A cross site scripting vulnerability exists when Microsoft Dynamics NAV does not properly sanitize a specially crafted web request to an affected Dynamics NAV server, aka "Microsoft Dynamics NAV Cross Site Scripting Vulnerability." This affects Microsoft Dynamics NAV.
CVE-2018-8652
PUBLISHED: 2018-12-12
A Cross-site Scripting (XSS) vulnerability exists when Windows Azure Pack does not properly sanitize user-provided input, aka "Windows Azure Pack Cross Site Scripting Vulnerability." This affects Windows Azure Pack Rollup 13.1.
CVE-2018-8617
PUBLISHED: 2018-12-12
A remote code execution vulnerability exists in the way that the Chakra scripting engine handles objects in memory in Microsoft Edge, aka "Chakra Scripting Engine Memory Corruption Vulnerability." This affects Microsoft Edge, ChakraCore. This CVE ID is unique from CVE-2018-8583, CVE-2018-8...
CVE-2018-8618
PUBLISHED: 2018-12-12
A remote code execution vulnerability exists in the way that the Chakra scripting engine handles objects in memory in Microsoft Edge, aka "Chakra Scripting Engine Memory Corruption Vulnerability." This affects Microsoft Edge, ChakraCore. This CVE ID is unique from CVE-2018-8583, CVE-2018-8...
CVE-2018-8619
PUBLISHED: 2018-12-12
A remote code execution vulnerability exists when the Internet Explorer VBScript execution policy does not properly restrict VBScript under specific conditions, aka "Internet Explorer Remote Code Execution Vulnerability." This affects Internet Explorer 9, Internet Explorer 11, Internet Exp...