Iranian cyberespionage group attacked over 1,600 high-profile targets in one year

Security researchers believe they've identified the group's main programmer

In a single year, a cyberespionage group with possible ties to the Iranian government has targeted over 1,600 defense officials, diplomats, researchers, human rights activists, journalists and other high-profile individuals around the world.

The group, known as Rocket Kitten, has been active since early 2014 and its attacks have been analyzed by various security vendors. However, a major breakthrough in the investigation came recently when researchers from Check Point Software Technologies obtained access to the command-and-control servers used by the attackers.

Compared to other cyberespionage groups, Rocket Kitten is not very sophisticated, but it is persistent. It makes extensive use of social engineering through spear-phishing attacks that infect victims with custom-written malware, the Check Point researchers said in a report published Monday.

The attackers were not very concerned with operational security and left major weaknesses in their infrastructure, which researchers were able to exploit. This allowed them to extract messages between the different members of the group from the custom-built Web application that it used to coordinate phishing attacks, as well as a list of over 1,600 intended victims that were targeted between August 2014 and 2015.

The list included human rights activists, business executives, ministry officials, nuclear scientists, military personnel, national security and foreign policy researchers, scholars, persons of influence, representatives of NATO and other countries, and employees of educational institutions and media outlets. The largest number of victims were from Saudi Arabia, the U.S., Iran, the Netherlands and Israel.

Iranian professors, scientists, journalists and investors living abroad were also targeted.

It seems that the attackers did not take into consideration the possible compromise of their own command-and-control server and have infected their own computers with their custom keylogger-type malware, most likely for testing purposes.

This allowed the researchers to identify an Iranian software engineer who they believe is the main developer of the group's tools. This was done by correlating data copied by the malware from the developer's workstation with online research.

"In this case, as in other previously reported cases, it can be assumed that an official body recruited local hackers and diverted them from defacing web sites to targeted espionage at the service of their country," the Check Point researchers said. Such inexperienced personnel with limited training often lack operational security awareness, the researchers said, with the result that they leave "a myriad of traces to the origin of the attack and their true identities."

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Lucian Constantin

IDG News Service
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