An Iran-linked hacking group tracked as Tortoiseshell has expanded its list of targets to newer industries and more geographies, according to a new warning from Facebook’s security team.
Recent activity that Facebook associated with the group focused on military personnel, defense organizations, and aerospace entities primarily in the United States and, to a lesser extent, the U.K. and Europe, showing an escalation of the group’s cyberespionage activities.
Active since at least 2018, Tortoiseshell was previously observed targeting information technology organizations in the Middle East, mostly in Saudi Arabia, with the Syskit backdoor, which was designed to collect various information from the compromised machines and send it to its command and control (C&C) server.
In 2019, Cisco Talos uncovered a Tortoiseshell campaign targeting military veterans in the United States, using the same backdoor previously associated with the group. The hackers deployed a fake website claiming to help veterans find jobs, but instead attempted to infect their devices with spying tools and other malicious programs.
Today, Facebook revealed that it took action against similar attacks from the Iranian hacking group, which leveraged its online platform to lure victims into downloading malware. The campaign continued to focus on U.S. targets, but expanded to the U.K. and Europe as well.
“This activity had the hallmarks of a well-resourced and persistent operation, while relying on relatively strong operational security measures to hide who’s behind it,” Facebook says.
In support of the attacks, Tortoiseshell created sophisticated fake online personas – with profiles across multiple platforms – to engage with the intended victims and lure them into accessing malicious links. The personas employed various collaboration and messaging platforms and in some cases conducted months-long conversations with their targets.
The hackers were posing as recruiters and employees of defense and aerospace companies, as journalists, or as employees of NGOs and organizations in hospitality, medicine, and airline industries.
The hackers also deployed multiple domains tailored to specific targets in the aerospace and defense industries, including recruiting portals, a website that spoofed a legitimate US Department of Labor job search site, and domains that spoofed major e-mail providers and URL-shortening services.
The threat actor also used custom malware tools such as remote-access Trojans, reconnaissance tools, and keyloggers, including modified versions of the Syskit backdoor, Facebook says.
One of the malware used by the group is believed to have been developed by Tehran-based IT company Mahak Rayan Afraz (MRA), which appears to be tied to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Facebook also notes.