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Iranian Hackers Wage Offensive Cyberattacks Amid Tensions with US

Iran has increased its offensive cyberattacks against the U.S. government and critical infrastructure

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Iranian, Hackers, Cyberattacks
FILE - Iranian President Hassan Rouhani addresses the nation from Tehran, Aug. 6, 2018. Iran has increased its offensive cyberattacks against the U.S. government and critical infrastructure as tensions have grown between the two nations, experts say. VOA

Iran has increased its offensive cyberattacks against the U.S. government and critical infrastructure as tensions have grown between the two nations, cybersecurity firms say.

In recent weeks, hackers believed to be working for the Iranian government have targeted U.S. government agencies, as well as sectors of the economy, including oil and gas, sending waves of spear-phishing emails, according to representatives of cybersecurity companies CrowdStrike and FireEye, which regularly track such activity.

It was not known if any of the hackers managed to gain access to the targeted networks with the emails, which typically mimic legitimate emails but contain malicious software.

U.S. sanctions

Iranian, Hackers, Cyberattacks
FILE – Security firm FireEye’s logo is seen outside the company’s offices in Milpitas, Calif. VOA

The cyber offensive is the latest chapter in U.S.-Iran cyber operations battle, with this recent sharp increase in attacks occurring after the Trump administration imposed sanctions on the Iranian petrochemical sector this month.

Tensions have escalated since the U.S. withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran last year and began a policy of “maximum pressure.” Iran has since been hit by multiple rounds of sanctions. Tensions spiked this past week after Iran shot down an unmanned U.S. drone,  an incident that nearly led to a U.S. military strike against Iran on Thursday evening.

“Both sides are desperate to know what the other side is thinking,” said John Hultquist, director of intelligence analysis at FireEye. “You can absolutely expect the regime to be leveraging every tool they have available to reduce the uncertainty about what’s going to happen next, about what the U.S.’s next move will be.”

CrowdStrike shared images of the spear-phishing emails with AP.

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One such email that was confirmed by FireEye appeared to come from the Executive Office of the President and seemed to be trying to recruit people for an economic adviser position. Another email was more generic and appeared to include details on updating Microsoft Outlook’s global address book.

The Iranian actor involved in the cyberattack, dubbed “Refined Kitten” by CrowdStrike, has for years targeted the U.S. energy and defense sectors, as well as allies such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, said Adam Meyers, vice president of intelligence at CrowdStrike.

The National Security Agency would not discuss Iranian cyber actions specifically but said in a statement to AP on Friday that “there have been serious issues with malicious Iranian cyber actions in the past.”

“In these times of heightened tensions, it is appropriate for everyone to be alert to signs of Iranian aggression in cyberspace and ensure appropriate defenses are in place,” the NSA said.

Iranian, Hackers, Cyberattacks
FILE – In 2010, the Stuxnet virus disrupted operation of centrifuges at a uranium enrichment facility in Iran. VOA

Fuel sectors, infrastructure

Iran has long targeted the U.S. oil and gas sectors and other critical infrastructure, but those efforts dropped significantly after the nuclear agreement was signed. Cyber experts said that after President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the deal in May 2018, they saw an increase in Iranian hacking efforts.

“This is not a remote war [anymore],” said Sergio Caltagirone, vice president of threat intelligence at Dragos Inc. “This is one where Iranians could ‘bring the war home’ to the United States.”

Caltagirone said as nations increase their abilities to engage offensively in cyberspace, the ability of the United States to pick a fight internationally and have that fight stay out of the United States physically is increasingly reduced.

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The U.S. has had a contentious cyber history with Iran.

In 2010, the so-called Stuxnet virus disrupted the operation of thousands of centrifuges at a uranium enrichment facility in Iran. Iran accused the U.S. and Israel of trying to undermine its nuclear program through covert operations.

Iran has also shown a willingness to conduct destructive campaigns. Iranian hackers in 2012 launched an attack against state-owned oil company Saudi Aramco, releasing a virus that erased data on 30,000 computers and left an image of a burning American flag on screens.

Banks, dam

In 2016, the U.S. indicted Iranian hackers for a series of punishing cyberattacks on U.S. banks and a small dam outside New York City.

U.S. Cyber Command refused to comment on the latest Iranian activity. “As a matter of policy and for operational security, we do not discuss cyberspace operations, intelligence or planning,” Pentagon spokeswoman Heather Babb said in a statement. The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

Despite the apparent cyber campaign, experts say the Iranians would not necessarily immediately exploit any access they gain into computer systems and may seek to maintain future capabilities should their relationship with the U.S. further deteriorate.

“It’s important to remember that cyber is not some magic offensive nuke you can fly over and drop one day,” said Oren Falkowitz, a former National Security Agency analyst. It takes years of planning, he said, but as tensions increase, “cyber impact is going to be one of the tools they use and one of the hardest things to defend against.” (VOA)

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Researchers Reveal Vulnerabilities that Allowed Hackers to Manipulate Images on WhatsApp and Telegram

WhatsApp saves files to external storage automatically, while Telegram does so when the "Save to Gallery" feature is enabled

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Hackers, Images, Whatsapp
The security flaw, dubbed "Media File Jacking", affected WhatsApp for Android by default. Pixabay

If you thought instant messaging platforms like WhatsApp and Telegram that provide end-to-end encryption give you rock-solid security, think again. Researchers from cyber-security firm Symantec on Monday revealed vulnerabilities that allowed hackers to manipulate the images and audio files you receive on these platforms.

The security flaw, dubbed “Media File Jacking”, affected WhatsApp for Android by default, and Telegram for Android if certain features were enabled, Symantec researchers said in a blog post.

According to the researchers, WhatsApp saves files to external storage automatically, while Telegram does so when the “Save to Gallery” feature is enabled. However, neither apps have any system in place to protect users from a Media File Jacking attack, the researchers from Symantec’s Modern OS Security team explained.

Attackers could exploit this vulnerability to scam victims in various ways.

Hackers, Images, Whatsapp
If you thought instant messaging platforms like WhatsApp and Telegram that provide end-to-end encryption give you rock-solid security, think again. Pixabay

“If the security flaw is exploited, a malicious attacker could misuse and manipulate sensitive information such as personal photos and videos, corporate documents, invoices, and voice memos,” wrote Software Engineer Alon Gat and Yair Amit, Vice-President and Chief Technology Officer, Modern OS Security, Symantec.

Giving example of image manipulation, the researchers said a seemingly innocent, but actually malicious, app downloaded by a user could manipulate personal photos in near-real time and without the victim knowing.

The app runs in the background and performs a “Media File Jacking attack” while the victim uses WhatsApp. It monitors for photos received through the app, identifies faces in photos, and replaces them with something else, such as other faces or objects.

“A WhatsApp user may send a family photo to one of their contacts, but what the recipient sees is actually a modified photo. While this attack may seem trivial and just a nuisance, it shows the feasibility of manipulating images on the fly,” said the blog post.

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Using the same vulnerability, the attackers could make payment manipulation, audio message spoofing or spread fake news.

“In one of the most damaging Media File Jacking attacks, a malicious actor can manipulate an invoice sent by a vendor to a customer, to trick the customer into making a payment to an illegitimate account,” Gat and Amit wrote.

“The Media File Jacking threat is especially concerning in light of the common perception that the new generation of IM (instant messaging) apps are immune to content manipulation and privacy risks, thanks to the utilisation of security mechanisms like end-to-end encryption,” they added.

Hackers, Images, Whatsapp
Researchers from cyber-security firm Symantec on Monday revealed vulnerabilities that allowed hackers to manipulate the images and audio files. Pixabay

Reports in May revealed that a bug in WhatsApp’s audio call feature allowed hackers to install spyware onto Android and iOS phones just by calling the target. The spyware was reportedly developed by the Israeli cyber intelligence company NSO Group.

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WhatsApp had said it identified and “promptly” fixed the vulnerability that could enable an attacker to insert and execute code on mobile devices. (IANS)