There is evolution and development underway within Iranian-based hacker groups that coincides with Iran’s efforts at controlling political dissent and expanding offensive cyber capabilities. The capabilities of threat actors operating from Iran have traditionally been considered limited and have focused on politically motivated website defacement and DDoS attacks.
Our team has published a report that documents the activities of an Iran-based group, known as the Ajax Security Team, which has been targeting both US defense companies as well as those in Iran who are using popular anti-censorship tools to bypass Internet censorship controls in the country.
This group, which has its roots in popular Iranian hacker forums such as Ashiyane and Shabgard, has engaged in website defacements since 2010. However, by 2014, this group had transitioned to malware-based espionage, using a methodology consistent with other advanced persistent threats in this region.
It is unclear if the Ajax Security Team operates in isolation or if they are a part of a larger coordinated effort. We have observed this group leverage varied social engineering tactics as a means to lure their targets into infecting themselves with malware. They use malware tools that do not appear to be publicly available. Although we have not observed the use of exploits as a means to infect victims, members of the Ajax Security Team have previously used exploit code in web site defacement operations.
The objectives of this group are consistent with Iran’s efforts at controlling political dissent and expanding offensive cyber capabilities, but we believe that members of the group may also be dabbling in traditional cybercrime. This indicates that there is a considerable grey area between the cyber espionage capabilities of Iran’s hacker groups and any direct Iranian government or military involvement.
Although the Ajax Security Team’s capabilities remain unclear, we believe that their current operations have been somewhat successful. We assess that if these actors continue the current pace of their operations they will improve their capabilities in the mid-term.