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Iranian Threat Group Targets 380 Global Universities

An Iranian threat group exposed last year has been detected targeted hundreds of universities in over 30 countries in a global phishing operation.

Cobalt Dickens has been linked to indictments last year against nine Iranian nationals who worked for the Mabna Institute. They allegedly stole more than 31TB of data from over 140 US universities, 30 US companies and five government agencies, alongside more than 176 universities in 21 other countries.

The Secureworks Counter Treat Unit this week claimed their activity has not declined despite the publicity given to the indictments; in fact, it discovered a new campaign similar to the group's August 2018 phishing raids, using free online services and publicly available tools.

Specifically, the group uses compromised university resources to send spoofed library-themed emails containing links to log-in pages designed to harvest user credentials.

Some 20 new domains were registered in Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Hong Kong, and Switzerland using the Freenom domain provider. Many use valid SSL certificates issued by Let’s Encrypt to add further authenticity to the phishing campaigns.

Continuing the theme of using publicly available resources to carry out these attacks, the group utilized the SingleFile plugin available on GitHub and the free HTTrack Website Copier standalone application, to copy the login pages of targeted university resources, according to Secureworks.

The researchers claimed that metadata in the spoofed web pages indicates the attackers are of Iranian origin. At least 380 universities worldwide have apparently been targeted in this latest campaign.

“Some educational institutions have implemented multi-factor authentication (MFA) to specifically address this threat,” it concluded.

“While implementing additional security controls like MFA could seem burdensome in environments that value user flexibility and innovation, single-password accounts are insecure. CTU researchers recommend that all organizations protect Internet-facing resources with MFA to mitigate credential-focused threats.”

Universities are an increasingly popular target for nation state attackers looking for highly sensitive research to advance homegrown development programs.

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