True North Networks Blog
Potential for Iranian Cyber Response to U.S. Military Strike in Baghdad
The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) is sharing the following information with the cybersecurity community as a primer for assisting in the protection of our Nation’s critical infrastructure in light of the current tensions between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the United States and Iran’s historic use of cyber offensive activities to retaliate against perceived harm. Foremost, CISA recommends organizations take the following actions:
- Adopt a state of heightened awareness. This includes minimizing coverage gaps in personnel availability, more consistently consuming relevant threat intelligence, and making sure emergency call trees are up to date.
- Increase organizational vigilance. Ensure security personnel are monitoring key internal security capabilities and that they know how to identify anomalous behavior. Flag any known Iranian indicators of compromise and tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) for immediate response.
- Confirm reporting processes. Ensure personnel know how and when to report an incident. The well-being of an organization’s workforce and cyber infrastructure depends on awareness of threat activity. Consider reporting incidents to CISA to help serve as part of CISA’s early warning system (see link below for further details).
- Exercise organizational incident response plans. Ensure personnel are familiar with the key steps they need to take during an incident. Do they have the accesses they need? Do they know the processes? Are your various data sources logging as expected? Ensure personnel are positioned to act in a calm and unified manner.
Iranian Cyber Threat Profile
Iran has a history of leveraging asymmetric tactics to pursue national interests beyond its conventional capabilities. More recently, its use of offensive cyber operations is an extension of that doctrine. Iran has exercised its increasingly sophisticated capabilities to suppress both social and political perspectives deemed dangerous to Iran and to harm regional and international opponents.
Iranian cyber threat actors have continuously improved their offensive cyber capabilities. They continue to engage in more “conventional” activities ranging from website defacement, distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks, and theft of personally identifiable information (PII), but they have also demonstrated a willingness to push the boundaries of their activities, which include destructive wiper malware and, potentially, cyber-enabled kinetic attacks.
The U.S. intelligence community and various private sector threat intelligence organizations have identified the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a driving force behind Iranian state-sponsored cyberattacks–either through contractors in the Iranian private sector or by the IRGC itself.
Iranian Cyber Activity
According to open-source information, offensive cyber operations targeting a variety of industries and organizations—including financial services, energy, government facilities, chemical, healthcare, critical manufacturing, communications, and the defense industrial base—have been attributed, or allegedly attributed, to the Iranian government. The same reporting has associated Iranian actors with a range of high-profile attacks, including the following:
- Late 2011 to Mid-2013 – DDoS Targeting U.S. Financial Sector: In response to this activity, in March 2016, the U.S. Department of Justice indicted seven Iranian actors employed by companies performing work on behalf of the IRGC for conducting DDoS attacks primarily targeting the public-facing websites of U.S. banks. The attacks prevented customers from accessing their accounts and cost the banks millions of dollars in remediation. 
- August/September 2013 – Unauthorized Access to Dam in New York State: In response, in March 2016, the U.S. Department of Justice indicted one Iranian actor employed by a company performing work on behalf of the IRGC for illegally accessing the supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems of the Bowman Dam in Rye, New York. The access allowed the actor to obtain information regarding the status and operation of the dam. 
- February 2014 – Sands Las Vegas Corporation Hacked: Cyber threat actors hacked into the Sands Las Vegas Corporation in Las Vegas, Nevada, and stole customer data, including credit card data, Social Security Numbers, and driver’s license numbers. According to a Bloomberg article from December 2014, the attack also involved a destructive portion, in which the Sands Las Vegas Corporation’s computer systems were wiped. In September 2015, the U.S. Director of National Intelligence identified the Iranian government as the perpetrator of the attack in a Statement for the Record to the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. 
- 2013 to 2017 – Cyber Theft Campaign on Behalf of IRGC: In response, in March 2018, the U.S. Justice Department indicted nine Iranian actors associated with the Mabna Institute for conducting a massive cyber theft campaign containing dozens of individual incidents, including “many on behalf of the IRGC.” The thefts targeted academic and intellectual property data as well as email account credentials. According to the indictment, the campaign targeted “144 U.S. universities, 176 universities across 21 foreign countries, 47 domestic and foreign private sector companies, the U.S. Department of Labor, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the State of Hawaii, the State of Indiana, the United Nations, and the United Nations Children’s Fund.” 
The following is a composite of actionable technical recommendations for IT professionals and providers to reduce their overall vulnerability. These recommendations are not exhaustive; rather they focus on the actions that will likely have the highest return on investment. In general, CISA recommends two courses of action in the face of potential threat from Iranian actors: 1) vulnerability mitigation and 2) incident preparation.
- Disable all unnecessary ports and protocols. Review network security device logs and determine whether to shut off unnecessary ports and protocols. Monitor common ports and protocols for command and control activity.
- Enhance monitoring of network and email traffic. Review network signatures and indicators for focused operations activities, monitor for new phishing themes and adjust email rules accordingly, and follow best practices of restricting attachments via email or other mechanisms.
- Patch externally facing equipment. Focus on patching critical and high vulnerabilities that allow for remote code execution or denial of service on externally facing equipment.
- Log and limit usage of PowerShell. Limit the usage of PowerShell to only users and accounts that need it, enable code signing of PowerShell scripts, and enable logging of all PowerShell commands.
- Ensure backups are up to date and stored in an easily retrievable location that is air-gapped from the organizational network.
For additional informaiton on Iranian Cyber Activity and Patterns of Publically Known Iranian APTs (including mitigations and detection recommendations), please view the full alert details at https://www.us-cert.gov/ncas/alerts/aa20-006a