The US Department of Justice today charged three Iranian hackers for their role in a campaign intended to steal critical data related to United States' aerospace and satellite technology and resources. This marks the third time in three days the DoJ has charged Iranian cyberattackers.
Said Pourkarim Arabi, 34, Mohammad Reza Espargham, 25, and Mohammad Bayati, 34, are all residents and nationals of Iran and allegedly participated in a coordinated campaign of identity theft and hacking on behalf of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a designated foreign terrorist organization.
The indictment alleges their campaign ran from approximately July 2015 until at least February 2019, and targeted numerous organizations in the US and abroad. Defendants at one time had a target list of more than 1,800 online accounts, including some belonging to organizations focused on aerospace or satellite technology, as well as international government organizations in Australia, Israel, Singapore, the US, and the UK.
As part of the intrusion, the defendants used social engineering to identify real US citizens working in the aerospace and satellite fields whose identities they could use online. They then impersonated those people and used their stolen identities to register email addresses and buy domains and hacking tools to further their efforts. The attackers created spear-phishing emails to seem as though they came from the victims; they used these to deliver malware and give the attackers unauthorized access to target computers and networks, the DoJ explains.
Once inside an organization, they used hacking tools to maintain access, escalate privileges, and steal data the IRGC wanted. Attackers successfully compromised multiple target networks, leading to theft of sensitive commercial data, intellectual property, and personal data from companies, including a satellite-tracking firm and a satellite voice and data communication firm.
In a separate case, two Iranian nationals were charged on Sept. 16 in connection to a cyber-intrusion campaign aimed at computers in New Jersey as well as other parts of the US, Europe, and the Middle East. Hooman Heidarian, 30, and Mehdi Farhadi, 34, allegedly stole hundreds of terabytes of data. In some instances, the actions were politically motivated or at the behest of Iran; in others, the defendants sold the stolen data on the black market for monetary gain.
The information they stole typically included confidential communications related to national security, foreign policy intelligence, nonmilitary nuclear information, aerospace data, human rights activist information, victim financial information and personally identifiable data, and intellectual property, including unpublished scientific research, the DoJ reports.
In another case, two hackers were charged on Sept. 15 with damaging websites across the US as retaliation for US military action in January 2020 that killed Qasem Soleimani, head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force, also a US-designated foreign terrorist organization. Both were charged with one count of conspiring to commit intentional damage to a protected computer and one count of intentionally damaging a protected computer.
On the same day, the DHS Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) and Federal Bureau of Investigation released an alert warning of a malicious Iran-based attacker targeting several federal US agencies and US-based networks. The report points to correlation with the Pioneer Kitten threat group, which is believed to have ties to the Iranian government, and says the attacker/s is exploiting CVEs related to VPN infrastructure to gain access to target networks.
Adding to this week's activity, the US Department of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control today imposed sanctions on Iranian attack group APT39, 45 people linked to the group, and one front company. The Iranian government employed a years-long malware campaign to target Iranian dissidents, journalists, and international travel companies, the Treasury reports.
The front company, Rana Intelligence Computing Company, advances the goals of Iran's Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) by launching cyberattacks and malware campaigns against perceived adversaries, including governments and individuals. Under the guise of Rana, MOIS has played a key role in Iran's abuse and surveillance of its own citizens, the report states.