Tortoiseshell, an Iranian hacker group, used fake online personas to connect with targets and drive them onto other sites where they were tricked into clicking malicious links that would infect their devices with spying malware.

A hooded man holds a laptop computer as cyber code is projected on him in this illustration picture taken on May 13, 2017.
A hooded man holds a laptop computer as cyber code is projected on him in this illustration picture taken on May 13, 2017. (Reuters Archive)

Facebook has said it took down about 200 accounts run by a group of hackers in Iran as part of a cyber-spying operation that targeted mostly US military personnel and people working at defence and aerospace companies.

The social media giant said on Thursday that the group, dubbed "Tortoiseshell" by security experts, used fake online personas to connect with targets, build trust, sometimes over the course of several months, and drive them onto other sites where they were tricked into clicking malicious links that would infect their devices with spying malware.

"This activity had the hallmarks of a well-resourced and persistent operation, while relying on relatively strong operational security measures to hide who's behind it," Facebook's investigations team said in a blog post.

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Microsoft, Twitter also investigate 

The group, Facebook said, made fictitious profiles across multiple social media platforms to appear more credible, often posing as recruiters or employees of aerospace and defence companies. 

Microsoft-owned LinkedIn said it had removed a number of accounts and Twitter said it was "actively investigating" the information in Facebook's report.

Facebook said the group used email, messaging and collaboration services to distribute the malware, including through malicious Microsoft Excel spreadsheets. 

A Microsoft spokesperson said in a statement it was aware of and tracking this actor and that it takes action when it detects malicious activity.

Alphabet Inc said it had detected and blocked phishing on Gmail and issued warnings to its users. 

Workplace messaging app Slack Technologies Inc said it had acted to take down the hackers who used the site for social engineering and shut down all Workspaces that violated its rules.

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Hacks expand scale, mostly hit US, UK and Europe

The hackers also used tailored domains to attract its targets, Facebook said, including fake recruiting websites for defence companies, and set up online infrastructure that spoofed a legitimate job search website for the US Department of Labor.

Facebook said the hackers mostly targeted people in the United States, as well as some in the United Kingdom and Europe. 

Facebook declined to name the companies whose employees were targeted but said it was notifying the individuals targeted.

The campaign appeared to show an expansion of the group's activity, which had previously been reported to concentrate mostly on the IT and other industries in the Middle East, Facebook said. 

The investigation found that a portion of the malware used by the group was developed by Mahak Rayan Afraz (MRA), an IT company based in Tehran with ties to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Reuters could not immediately locate contact information for Mahak Rayan Afraz and former employees of the firm did not immediately return messages sent via LinkedIn. Iran's mission to the United Nations in New York did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

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Source: Reuters