Iran: State-Backed Hacking of Activists, Journalists, Politicians

(Beirut) – Hackers backed by the Iranian government have targeted two Human Rights Watch staff members and at least 18 other high-profile activists, journalists, researchers, academics, diplomats, and politicians working on Middle East issues in an ongoing social engineering and credential phishing campaign, Human Rights Watch said today.

An investigation by Human Rights Watch attributed the phishing attack to an entity affiliated with the Iranian government known as APT42 and sometimes referred to as Charming Kitten. The technical analysis conducted jointly by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International’s Security Lab identified 18 additional victims who have been targeted as part of the same campaign. The email and other sensitive data of at least three of them had been compromised: a correspondent for a major US newspaper, a women’s rights defender based in the Gulf region, and Nicholas Noe, an advocacy consultant for Refugees International based in Lebanon.

“Iran’s state-backed hackers are aggressively using sophisticated social engineering and credential harvesting tactics to access sensitive information and contacts held by Middle East-focused researchers and civil society groups,” said Abir Ghattas, information security director at Human Rights Watch. “This significantly increases the risks that journalists and human rights defenders face in Iran and elsewhere in the region.”

For the three people whose accounts were known to be compromised, the attackers gained access to their emails, cloud storage drives, calendars, and contacts and also performed a Google Takeout, using a service that exports data from the core and additional services of a Google account.

Various security companies have reported on phishing campaigns by APT42 targeting Middle East-focused researchers, civil society groups, and dissidents. Most of them identify APT42 based on targeting patterns and technical evidence. Organizations such as Google and the cybersecurity companies Recorded Future, Proofpoint, and Mandiant have linked APT 42 to Iranian authorities. Identifying and naming a threat actor helps researchers to identify, track, and link hostile cyber…