Cybersecurity

Iranian hackers likely targeted U.S. officials

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Iranian hackers have likely been targeting U.S. government officials and defense contractors with a social-media scheme active since at least 2011, according to a new report.

The operation sought the online credentials of at least 10 Israeli and American defense contractors, among several other targets, the May 28 report from iSight Partners, a Dallas -based cybersecurity firm, said. The Iranians allegedly set up a fake news site, NewsOnAir.org, staffed by a team of fake reporters who tried to connect via LinkedIn, Facebook and other social-media platforms to senior U.S. and Israeli government officials. Those requests linked to credential-stealing sites.

The report could not definitively conclude that Iran sponsored the operation, which iSight dubbed 'Newscaster,' but several signs point to the strong possibility, including that NewsOnAir.org was once registered in Tehran.

A common thread in the assets targeted was the U.S.-Israeli alliance, specifically officials and non-government experts working on nuclear proliferation issues. Iran has been enriching uranium that it says is for peaceful purposes. Israel, the United States and other nations say the uranium could be used for a bomb.

This is not the first high-profile cyber-espionage case related to Iran's nuclear program. Stuxnet, a computer worm reportedly developed by the U.S. and Israel, is alleged to have destroyed some of Iran's nuclear centrifuges in 2009 and 2010.

Iran may not be as sophisticated in cyber espionage as China, Russia or the United States, experts say, but what it lacks in sophistication it seems to have made up for in creativity. Though the alleged Iranian operation "was not that technically sophisticated, they were able to stay below the radar because they built and fabricated such an elaborate social engineering scheme," said John Hultquist, manager of cyber threat intelligence at iSight Partners.

"These guys are brash ... and they may not be as advanced, but they are making strides by trying new things," he said in an interview. The "asymmetric" tack taken by Iran "relies on persistence and creativity ... and as a result they've been quite successful over the last three years."

The revelation of alleged Iranian espionage comes 10 days after the Justice Department indicted five members of the Chinese military on charges of stealing U.S. trade secrets. The two cases appear to show varying tactics and geopolitical motives for targeting U.S. public and private assets.

The iSight report did not identify individual perpetrators; Hultquist said the hackers were likely a "team of actors working a professional schedule."

A DOJ spokesperson declined to say whether the department would consider indicting Iranian hackers if they were identified as part of the "Newscaster" operation.

About the Author

Sean Lyngaas is a staff writer covering defense, cybersecurity and intelligence issues. Connect with him on Twitter: @snlyngaas.

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