Iran’s crackdown on protesters could affect almost anyone in contact with them, thanks to a sophisticated internal police operation that routinely targets not only academics and dissidents but also those who have interacted with them — and even people only tangentially linked. Cyber security firms and prominent researchers of Iranian digital espionage efforts say one government-backed group in particular, Infy, will likely continue to increase its attacks even after the current unrest ends.
The Iranian security forces use many of the same tactics that nation-state actors and criminal groups deploy against corporate and political victims, particularly spear phishing — basically, emails from a phony source that urge the recipient to click a link that downloads information-exfiltrating malware. But unlike common crooks, Tehran and its agents are constantly refining and improving their phishing emails.
The Infy group is highly adaptable and regularly attacks targets inside Iran and beyond its borders. The group, or at least some of its code, goes back to 2007, according to research by Palo Alto Networks. That’s several years before Iran stepped up its cyber warfare capabilities in response to the 2010 revelation of the Stuxnet virus attack. Infy has since become one of the primary malware agents operating out of Iran, with a particular focus on Iranian civil society, according to a 2016 paper by researchers Colin Anderson and Claudio Guarnieri.
Unlike some other Iranian cyber actors who target foreign aerospace and military commercial interests, Infy focuses on individuals who may be a political threat to Iran’s leaders and the way they govern. “Infy became one of the most frequently observed agents for attempted malware attacks against Iranian civil society beginning in late 2014, growing in use up to the February 2016 parliamentary election in Iran,” write Anderson and Guarnieri.“While the near majority of the victims are located in Iran, the remaining hosts are widely distributed around the world, with a higher concentration in the United States, Sweden, Germany and Iraq – locations with large Iranian diasporas or regional interests. Several compromised systems maintain a clear relationship to regional adversaries and foreign entities that Iran maintains an espionage interest in.”
Infy likes to send PowerPoint decks with malware embedded in the title slide. When clicked, they install software that Infy can use to log keystrokes and remove data. Interestingly, the group repeatedly used the name “Amin Jalali” to register the email addresses it uses in attacks. “The contact information on these domains have been updated in recent months with false identities attributed to Poland and India to masque the original registrant, however, the ownership and contact email remains the same,” they report.
Spear phishing is nothing new. But an intelligence service backed by the resources of a nation-state can make it far more effective. Anderson and Guarnieri document a slow and steady evolution in the sophistication and effectiveness of Infy attacks, moving from blank emails containing only files with provocative titles to tailored pitches aimed at specific individuals — primarily, Western media companies that might be in contact with dissidents. The level of impersonation grew significantly between the group’s early days and today. In 2016, “one message claimed to be from Mohammad Taghi Karroubi, the son of reformist politician Mehdi Karroubi who ran for presidency in the 2009 elections and has been under house arrest since February 2011,” they write.
Most important, Infy modifies its tactics once defenders sniff them out as Palo Alto’s Tomer Bar and Simon Conant documented within the past six months.