A newly unearthed attack campaign out of Iran targeting US defense contractors and Iranian dissidents confirms that Iran has expanded its cyberoffense capability and strategy far beyond its signature politically themed website defacements -- into a full-blown cyber espionage operation.
The so-called "Operation Saffron Rose" series of attacks detailed today by FireEye demonstrates a more mature and rapidly evolving Iranian threat. The group behind the attacks, the Ajax Security Team, has moved from a defacement-happy operation in the name of political activism to a cyber espionage operation that in its own right has all the earmarks of an advanced persistent threat (APT), according to FireEye.
The Iranian Ajax Security Team, which last defaced a website last December, uses spearphishing attacks that include one purportedly from the IEEE's aerospace conference, as well as spoofed Microsoft Outlook Web Access and VPN login pages aimed at stealing user credentials from defense contractors and other members of the defense industry.
The group is also targeting Iranian dissidents within the nation as well as in other countries, using legitimate anti-censorship software tools as a lure. They laced two popular such tools, Psiphon and Ultrasurf, with malware, and FireEye found information on some 77 resulting victims on one Saffron Rose command-and-control server. FireEye says the Ajax Security Team is likely backed by the Iranian government, and its founders appear to be two members -- "HUrr!c4nE!" and "Cair3x" -- who had been involved in the website defacement operations.
The Ajax Security Team today was made up of somewhere between five and 10 individuals, says Darien Kindlund, director of threat research at FireEye. And it's not the only such cyber espionage group in Iran: "We believe there are others based in Iran," Kindlund says.
But Iran's APT operation is not quite as sophisticated as that of China. The Ajax Security Team operates more as a jack of all trades, Kindlund says. "In China, you have one group focused on going after aerospace or [defense], one group focusing on going after dissident activity, and another selling this [information] to third parties," he says. "But... Ajax Security Team is doing all three."
That's more a reflection of Iran not having quite as mature a cyberspying operation as China, he says. "What we are likely to see over time [is] these groups will become more specialized as they proliferate."
The gang employs private malware tools, but stops short of using exploit code to infect it victims, instead relying on the user to perform certain tasks such as downloading an executable or entering his or her credentials. With the IEEE aerospace conference spearphish, for example, the victim had to log in to register for the conference. "It's not like a drive-by exploit while visiting a web page. The victim would have to go through a number of hoops," Kindlund says.
Chinese APTs, meanwhile, automate that process by dropping exploits on the victim without his or her having to take any actions to run the executable file; just downloading a weaponized PDF does the trick for example, according to Kindlund.
"Those who were infected [by Saffron Rose] had to jump through a lot of hoops to get there," and that makes it harder for Iran's team to infect users, he says.
FireEye was unable to determine if Ajax Security Team is part of a bigger operation, or is a separate group. Members of the gang may be also be moonlighting in cybercrime, the report says.
"It [Iran] has certainly evolved. The methods they are using now to conduct their operations are in many ways equivalent to that of a nation-state sponsored group, with the purpose and objective of some sort of espionage activity," Kindlund says.
The gang developed its own custom malware, and encrypts stolen data as it siphons it from its victims. But even its encryption approach is a bit rudimentary: "They're using symmetrical encryption to do all the exfiltration," where the same key is used to encrypt and decrypt data, he says. "The key is hardcoded into all copies of the malware... It seems they don't have a strong grasp of encryption."
FireEye found no evidence of the gang's connection to the Shamoon data-destruction attacks two years ago that appear to have been behind attacks on Saudi Aramco and Qatar's RasGas.
Shamoon, which security experts say came out of attackers in Iran, was the first big departure for the nation's hackers from wreaking havoc with a defacement or DDoS, to full-blown annihilation of information. Shamoon has been unofficially linked to the massive breach at oil giant Saudi Aramco that took down 30,000 of its workstations by deleting and wiping files and overwriting the victim's master boot record.
"They are improving" their capabilities, says Jaime Blasco, director of AlienVault Labs, of the Iranian hackers.
Blasco says he wouldn't be surprised if there was some relation between those attacks and the Ajax Security Team. "I can imagine that the Iranian hacker community is not that big, so they are probably related" in some way, he says.
"We don't have enough evidence to tie them to Shamoon," FireEye's Kindlund says. But like Blasco, he says he wouldn't be shocked to find there was some connection.
[Old-school but painful data-destroying malware attacks in the Middle East a red flag to revisit incident response, recovery. Read The Data-Annihilation Attack Is Back, here.]
The Ajax Security Team has roots in Iranian hacker forums, including Ashiyyane and Shabgard.
The full FireEye report is available here.