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Iranian Hackers Target Critical Vulnerability in F5’s BIG-IP

A hacking group believed to be linked to the Iranian government was observed targeting a critical vulnerability that F5 Networks addressed in its BIG-IP application delivery controller (ADC) in early July.

A hacking group believed to be linked to the Iranian government was observed targeting a critical vulnerability that F5 Networks addressed in its BIG-IP application delivery controller (ADC) in early July.

Tracked as CVE-2020-5902 and featuring a CVSS score of 10, the vulnerability allows remote attackers to take complete control of a targeted system. F5’s BIG-IP is used by many large organizations for application acceleration, load balancing, SSL offloading, and web application firewall. 

The first attacks targeting the bug were seen several days after advisories and patches were released. At the time, Positive Technologies, which discovered the bug, identified over 8,000 vulnerable devices directly exposed to the Internet. 

Shortly after, attackers found ways to bypass mitigations in place for the vulnerability. At the end of July, CISA warned of adversaries exploiting the bugs in attacks on U.S. government and commercial organizations.

One threat group targeting the vulnerability, Crowdstrike notes in a blog post, is PIONEER KITTEN, an Iran-based cyber-espionage group believed to be “a contract element operating in support of the Iranian government.”

Active since at least 2017 and also tracked as PARISITE, UNC757, and FOX KITTEN, the group has been observed targeting the academic, aviation, chemical, defense, engineering, financial services, government, healthcare, insurance, media, manufacturing, consulting and professional services, retail, and technology sectors, in attacks that appear to be opportunistic in nature. 

The group’s focus is on “gaining and maintaining access to entities possessing sensitive information of likely intelligence interest to the Iranian government,” Crowdstrike notes. Targets are located in Israel, Middle East North Africa (MENA), and North America.

For initial access, PIONEER KITTEN mainly relies on exploiting remote external services on assets that are accessible from the Internet. The group almost exclusively employs open-source tools in their operations. 

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“PIONEER KITTEN’s namesake operational characteristic is its reliance on SSH tunneling, through open-source tools such as Ngrok and the adversary’s custom tool SSHMinion, for communication with implants and hands-on-keyboard activity via Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP),” Crowdstrike reveals.

In addition to CVE-2020-5902, the adversary also exploits vulnerabilities such as CVE-2019-11510 (arbitrary file reading in Pulse Secure), CVE-2018-13379 (system file download in Fortinet FortiOS), CVE-2019-1579 (arbitrary code execution in Palo Alto Networks VPN), and CVE-2019-19781 (unauthenticated code execution in Citrix Application Delivery Controller (ADC) and Gateway). 

“The widespread nature of PIONEER KITTEN’s target scope is likely a result of the adversary’s opportunistic operational model; the entities apparently of most interest to the adversary are technology, government, defense, and healthcare organizations,” Crowdstrike says. 

Related: Iranian Hackers Exploited Enterprise VPN Flaws in Major Campaign

Related: More Threat Groups Target Electric Utilities in North America

Related: CISA Says Hackers Exploited BIG-IP Vulnerability in Attacks on U.S. Government

Written By

Ionut Arghire is an international correspondent for SecurityWeek.

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