Investigation uncovers Iran-backed cyber-espionage group in MENA region
The Iran-backed cyber-espionage group CopyKittens has increased activities, launching attacks on governments, defence companies and academic institutions in support of Tehran’s political agenda, a report said.
An investigative study by Israeli firm ClearSky Cybersecurity and Trend Micro called Operation Wilted Tulip traced CopyKittens’ activities to 2013, shedding light on its work patterns and possible motivations.
The report revealed that CopyKittens’ activities mostly centred on espionage of strategic targets, particularly Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey, Israel, Germany and the United States.
The group extracted information from government organisations, academic institutions, online news sites and NGOs with the objective of gathering “as much information and data from target organisations as possible,” the report said.
CopyKittens used rudimentary techniques, such as phishing, malicious e-mail attachments and, more recently, watering hole attacks to gather information.
“It’s more that the methods they are using are efficient. They are getting out the data that they need to,” said Robert McArdle, director of research at Trend Micro, adding that the group’s lack of refinement makes it relatively easy to track CopyKittens’ activities compared to more sophisticated campaigns that could go on for years without being detected.
McArdle said CopyKittens’ methods are of the more traditional variety, using exploits to take advantage of out-of-date systems, so if the user is missing updates or patches, an automatic infection is more likely. A lot of the group’s attacks go after the most vulnerable parts of any organisation — humans.
“In any computer network security chain, the weakest link in always the human element,” said Iyad Barakat, a London-based digital analyst.
“Groups more sophisticated than CopyKittens will try to target the human element in the chain, using techniques like a watering hole attack to simply extract passwords because these methods save them time, effort and usually have a higher success rate than the more sophisticated ones.”
McArdle said an effective method to gain the human element’s trust is a social engineering campaign, which uses a number of psychological tricks to get the information needed to access a computer network.
“Social engineering is relatively quick and easy to do in terms of setting up fake e-mail accounts or fake Facebook accounts or whichever social networking profile you are going with,” McArdle said, adding that effort is required to manage these resources and accounts.
Social engineering can’t be stopped with traditional protection methods, said David Emm, principal security researcher at Kaspersky Lab.
“Social engineering works and even if businesses have the right protection, without the right staff education they can fall victim,” Emm said. “Awareness is low in the Middle East as generally Western businesses have had longer to grapple with such issues.”
One effective trick that CopyKittens used, McArdle said, is reaching important targets through other compromised accounts. Once CopyKittens gained access to an e-mail account in an organisation, it would not immediately try to take over higher-level targets in the company but log on and wait for a natural conversation to start between the person whose account it controls and the target. It might then reply to an e-mail thread, saying: “You might want to open this link.”
During the Gulf Information Security Expo and Conference in May in Dubai, experts urged for more cybersecurity cooperation between countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council. The Middle East cyber-security market is projected to grow to $22.14 billion by 2022, with Saudi Arabia expected to contribute the largest share.
Mohammed Alkhereiji is the Arab Weekly’s Gulf section editor.