Iranian journalism students use computers in an internet cafe in central Tehran, Iran, Jan. 18, 2011.

Iranian journalism students use computers in an internet cafe in central Tehran, Iran, Jan. 18, 2011. AP Photo/Vahid Salemi

Iranian Hackers Target U.S. Military Officials With Elaborate Social Media Scam

Posing as journalists and contractors, Iranian actors looked to connect to military and policy leaders. By Marina Koren

It was the "most elaborate social-engineering campaign" these security researchers had ever seen.

A new report from iSight Partners, a Dallas-based computer-security firm, exposed on Thursday a three-year cyberespionage campaign carried out by Iranian hackers. The digital attacks, which infected about 2,000 U.S. personal computers since 2011, targeted members of the U.S. military and Congress, as well as diplomats, lobbyists, and Washington-based journalists.

The long-term campaign, dubbed "Newscaster" by the security firm, employed a dozen fake social-media accounts on sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Hackers sent targets links that, when accessed, would unleash malware. They directed people to fake login screens to steal their user names and passwords. They impersonated journalists and defense contractors, and even set up a fake news website to lure victims.

All signs pointed to Iran as the source. Nicole Perlroth writes in The New York Times:

There were many clues. The fake website was registered in Tehran and sites that hackers used to deploy their malware were also hosted in Iran. The malware that the hackers used contained several Persian words. The time stamps of hackers' activity tracked with professional working hours in Tehran. They even took the day off on Iranian weekends and holidays.

Another telltale sign, researchers said, was the content the hackers posted on their personas' social media. In some cases, they posted Iranian jokes to their Facebook pages. One hacker used a Facebook page to ask followers, "What's kind of sanction will lead to undermining the Iranian nation?"

It's unclear exactly what information these hackers stole. But the fact that such a highly coordinated attack went unnoticed for several years suggests that the technical skills of Iranian hackers, usually outdone by far-superior Chinese and Russian hackers, are improving. This time last year, a wave of attacks targeting American energy companies was traced to Iran. Back then, U.S. intelligence officials were already worried about Iranian hackers' growing talents.