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Iran’s Deep State Launches Phishing Attacks Against Activists, Journalists, Researchers, Academics, Diplomats and Politicians


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Iranian security forces continue to crack down on protesters. According to activists, more than 448 protesters have been killed so far.

Now a human rights group says the crackdown has entered the digital realm.

Iranian government-backed hackers targeted two Human Rights Watch staff and at least 18 other senior activists, journalists, researchers, academics, diplomats and politicians working on Middle East issues. social engineering and credential phishing campaign, Human Rights Watch today said.

An investigation by the New York-based human rights group found that the phishing attacks were carried out by APT42, an entity affiliated with the Iranian government.

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

The American journalist among the prime targets

According to HRW, the main targets of the phishing attack are the correspondent of a major American newspaper, a women’s rights defender based in the Gulf, and Nicholas Noe, an advocacy consultant for Refugees International based in Lebanon.

How did the attack happen

According to the investigation, in October 2022, a Human Rights Watch staff member working received suspicious messages on WhatsApp from someone claiming to work for a Lebanon-based think tank, inviting them to a conference.

Once people clicked on the suspicious link, they were redirected to a login page where they filled in their email addresses and passwords.

Similar attacks were reported by other victims. The phishing links were sent via WhatsApp.

Social engineering and phishing attempts remain key elements of cyberattacks, HRW said.

Besides individuals, Iranian hackers have also targeted foreign governments, militaries and businesses, HRW added.

Through these attacks, hackers gain access to the victim’s mailboxes, web searches, online payment history as well as their location and travel plans.

Meanwhile, HRW said the attack showed it’s imperative for companies like Google to take extra steps to protect people from phishing attacks.

“In a region of the Middle East plagued by surveillance threats to activists, it is essential that digital security researchers not only publish and promote their findings, but also prioritize the protection of activists, journalists and beleaguered civil society leaders in the region,” Ghattas said.

With contributions from Human Rights Watch

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