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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

A hacker group associated with the Iranian government is selling “access to compromised networks on an underground forum,” likely without Tehran’s blessing, according to research by threat intelligence firm CrowdStrike.

Why it matters: That these Iranian hackers were apparently caught trying to make money on the side may show the dangers of relying on likely underpaid contractors to conduct sensitive offensive cyber operations.

What’s happening: The group, which CrowdStrike has named “Pioneer Kitten,” has been active since 2017, with its last known activity occurring in July 2020.

  • The group has focused on hacking North American and Israeli targets in the “technology, government, defense, healthcare, aviation, media, academic, engineering, consulting and professional services, chemical, manufacturing, financial services, insurance, and retail” sectors, says CrowdStrike, with a particular focus on government, defense and tech firms.
  • Pioneer Kitten often focuses on targets of opportunity, says CrowdStrike, such as unpatched devices, showing that you don’t need to employ advanced tactics to achieve operational results.

The intrigue: In late July, CrowdStrike observed someone associated with Pioneer Kitten selling access to hacked networks online.

  • CrowdStrike believes this commercial activity would not have been sanctioned by Tehran and that Pioneer Kitten may therefore consist of contractors associated with the Iranian government — not actual intelligence officers.

Go deeper

Nov 27, 2020 - World

Maximum pressure campaign escalates with Fakhrizadeh killing

Photo: Fars News Agency via AP

The assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the architect of Iran’s military nuclear program, is a new height in the maximum pressure campaign led by the Trump administration and the Netanyahu government against Iran.

Why it matters: It exceeds the capture of the Iranian nuclear archives by the Mossad, and the sabotage in the advanced centrifuge facility in Natanz.

Updated 4 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

  1. Health: Pfizer and Moderna boosters overwhelmingly prevent Omicron hospitalizations, CDC finds — Omicron pushes COVID deaths toward 2,000 per day — The pandemic-proof health care giant.
  2. Vaccines: The case for Operation Warp Speed 2.0 — Starbucks drops worker vaccine or test requirement after SCOTUS ruling — Kids' COVID vaccination rates are particularly low in rural America.
  3. Politics: Biden concedes U.S. should have done more testing — Arizona says it "will not be intimidated" by Biden on anti-mask school policies — Federal judge blocks Biden's vaccine mandate for federal workers.
  4. World: American Airlines flight to London forced to turn around over mask dispute — WHO: COVID health emergency could end this year — Greece imposes vaccine mandate for people 60 and older — Austria approves COVID vaccine mandate for adults.
  5. Variant tracker

Arizona governor sues Biden administration over COVID funds tied to mandates

A teacher prepares a hallway barrier to help students maintain social distancing at John B. Wright Elementary School in Tucson, Arizona, on Aug. 14, 2020. Photo: Cheney Orr/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) filed a lawsuit Friday against the Biden administration for ordering the state to stop allocating federal COVID relief funds to schools that don't comply with public health recommendations such as masking, the Arizona Republic reports.

Why it matters: The Treasury Department said last week that the state would have to pay back the money if Ducey does not redesignate the $173 million programs to ensure they don't "undermine efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19."