A suspected Iran-based hacking group known for defacing websites has shown increased ambition over the past few months, targeting U.S. defense contractors and Iranian dissidents, according to a new report from security company FireEye.
The group, which calls itself the Ajax Security Team, stopped defacing websites around December, but a network of computers it uses to steal data has shown continued activity distributing malware aimed at higher-value targets, FireEye said in its report, called “Operation Saffron Rose.”
The security company recovered information on 77 people targeted by the group by analyzing a command-and-control server used to store stolen data. Most of the victims had their computers set to the Persian language and to Iran’s time zone. FireEye said it also uncovered evidence the group targeted U.S. defense contractors.
There is no clear link between the group and Iran’s government, although the country has been trying to expand its offensive cybercapabilities, said the report, written by Nart Villeneuve, Ned Moran, Thoufique Haq and Mike Scott.
“While the objectives of this group are consistent with Iran’s efforts at controlling political dissent and expanding offensive cyber capabilities, the relationship between this group and the Iranian government remains inconclusive,” the report said.
The Ajax Security Team’s transition from “patriotic” hacking—defacing websites in defense of Iran’s government—to more cyber-espionage is one the company has noticed with China-based hacking groups.
“Members of the Chinese hacking community that participated in such attacks soon found that transitioning to cyberespionage was more rewarding—both in terms of developing a more advanced skill set as well as in monetary remuneration,” FireEye said.
At one time, the Ajax Security Team had a website and forum, but those are now offline. FireEye identified some of the group’s prominent members by their screen names, saying the group appeared to be formed in 2010 by people going by the screen names “HUrr1c4nE!” and “Cair3x.”
In one attack, the group created a fake website for the IEEE Aerospace Conference, an annual weeklong conference attended by high-ranking government and military members.
It then targeted conference-goers with emails leading to the fake website. The website then tried to persuade visitors to install proxy software in order to access the site, which was actually malware, FireEye said.
The email address used to register the fake website was the same as the address used to register the Ajax Security Team’s domain, FireEye said.
The Ajax Security Team also appears to target Iranian dissidents. Since the Internet is heavily censored in Iran, some people inside the country use privacy enhancing and anticensorship tools such as Psiphon and Ultrasurf.
Malware-laden versions of those tools “were distributed to Iran and Persian speaking people around the world,” FireEye said, suggesting the group is aligned with the views of the Iranian government.