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Iranian 'CopyKittens' Conduct Foreign Espionage

CopyKittens Iran cyberspies

An Iran-linked threat group named by researchers CopyKittens has been conducting foreign espionage on strategic targets in various countries. Trend Micro and ClearSky have published a report detailing the actor’s activities, including targets, tools and attack methods.

The first report on CopyKittens was published in November 2015, but the group is believed to have been active since at least 2013. The hackers initially appeared to mainly target Israeli individuals, including diplomats and researchers, but further analysis showed that its operations have also covered entities in Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United States, Jordan and Germany.

The list of targets includes government organizations, academic institutions, IT firms, defense companies and contractors, municipal authorities, and employees of the United Nations.

According to the latest report on CopyKittens activity, dubbed Operation Wilted Tulip, the hackers have used a wide range of tools and tactics. In some cases, they relied on watering hole attacks where news and other websites were compromised and set up to deliver exploits. The organizations whose websites were abused as watering holes includes The Jerusalem Post, for which even Germany’s Federal Office for Information Security (BSI) issued an alert.

The hackers also delivered malware using malicious documents set up to exploit various vulnerabilities, including the recently discovered Office flaw tracked as CVE-2017-0199, which at one point was a zero-day. In one attack, the hackers breached the email account of an employee of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. The compromised account was used to send out a weaponized document to foreign affairs ministries in various countries around the world.

Some of the attacks targeting Israeli entities also leveraged fake social media profiles, often appearing to belong to attractive women.

As for the tools and malware used by CopyKittens, they leveraged automated scanning and exploitation tools such as Havij, sqlmap and Acunetix to find vulnerabilities in the targeted websites.

The threat actor has used both its own and widely available malware and tools, including the TDTESS backdoor, the Matryoshka RAT, the Vminst lateral movement tool, the Cobalt Strike threat emulation software, Mimikatz, Metasploit, the ZPP compression utility, and the Empire post-exploitation tool.

Some of the tools and malware have allowed the group to use DNS for command and control (C&C) communications and data exfiltration.

CopyKittens is not the only Iran-linked cyber espionage group. In the past years, security firms have also exposed the activities of actors known as Rocket Kitten, COBALT GYPSY, and Charming Kitten (Newscaster, NewsBeef).

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Eduard Kovacs (@EduardKovacs) is a contributing editor at SecurityWeek. He worked as a high school IT teacher for two years before starting a career in journalism as Softpedia’s security news reporter. Eduard holds a bachelor’s degree in industrial informatics and a master’s degree in computer techniques applied in electrical engineering.