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Iran cyberespionage strengthens in quality, quantity

Iran flag
An Iranian flag in Tehran. Photo: Kaveh Kazemi / Getty Images

The U.S. recently indicted members of an Iranian government contractor for hacking universities and companies to steal research. Cybersecurity firm Mandiant, which highlighted Iran as a growing force in 2017 in an annual report released today, has seen an uptick in believed government affiliated Iranian hackers stealing intellectual property from businesses.

Why it matters: Once among the world's most amateurish cyber-powers, Iran has become a mature, aggressive player in digital espionage.

"It seemed like we were investigating attacks from Iran more than anything else,"
— Charles Carmakal, Vice President of Mandiant, tells Axios.

Carmakal also speculates that IP may be being used to help Iranian companies create more impressive products.

The current status: Mandiant and it's parent company, FireEye, named three new advanced persistent threats (APTs) from Iran in 2017. APTs are campaigns that target specific victims with consistent, sophisticated, and patient attacks rather than the one-off victims or victims of opportunity chosen by most hackers.

The background: "We used to joke around 2010 that Iran looked a lot like Anonymous," said Carmakal. Around that point the Iranian threat was limited to denial of service attacks.

  • Later, as Iran began to develop its own tools, researchers noted that Iranian agents would place hacker pseudonyms in source code or claim credit for defacing websites — not the secure, quiet, unattributable hacking used by most nations.
  • "We saw some nations that needed to mature, but nothing as bad as Iran," said Carmakal, thought he says Iranian attacks have shown drastic improvement.

Important note: These believed to be Iranian groups are known for destructive cyber attacks within the Middle East, but they do not appear to be conducting destructive attacks in the United States.

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