Iranian hackers, most likely employees or affiliates of the government, have been running a vast cyberespionage operation equipped with surveillance tools that can outsmart encrypted messaging systems — a capability Iran was not previously known to possess, according to two digital security reports released Friday.
The operation not only targets domestic dissidents, religious and ethnic minorities and anti-government activists abroad but can also be used to spy on the general public inside Iran, said the reports by Check Point Software Technologies, a cybersecurity technology firm, and the Miaan Group, a human rights organization that focuses on digital security in the Middle East.
The reports say that the hackers have successfully infiltrated what were thought to be secure mobile phones and computers belonging to the targets, overcoming obstacles created by encrypted applications such as Telegram and, according to Miaan, even gaining access to information on WhatsApp. Both are popular messaging tools in Iran. The hackers also have created malware disguised as Android applications, the reports said.
A spokesperson for Telegram said that the company was unaware of the Iranian hacker operation but that “no service can prevent being imitated in ‘phishing’ attacks when someone convinces users to enter their credentials on a malicious website.”
WhatsApp declined to comment.
The reports suggest significant advances in the competency of Iranian intelligence hackers. And they come amid warnings from Washington that Iran is using cybersabotage to try to influence U.S. elections. Federal prosecutors on Wednesday identified two Iranian individuals they said had hacked into U.S. computers and stolen data on behalf of Iran’s government and for financial gain.
“Iran’s behavior on the internet, from censorship to hacking, has become more aggressive than ever,” said Amir Rashidi, director of digital rights and security at Miaan and the researcher for its report.
According to the report by Check Point’s intelligence unit, the cyberespionage operation was set up in 2014, and its full range of capabilities went undetected for six years.
Check Point said the hackers use a variety of infiltration techniques, including phishing, but the most widespread method is sending what appear to be tempting documents and applications to carefully selected targets.
These documents contain malware code that activates a number of spyware commands from an external server when the recipients open them on their desktops or phones. According to the Check Point report, almost all of the targets have been organizations and government foes who have left Iran and are now based in Europe. Miaan documented targets in the U.S. Canada and Turkey as well as the E.U..