Middle-Eastern 'Molerats' hackers return to take bite out of the BBC

Iranian or Syrian group expands targets

The burrowing Middle-Eastern 'Molerats' hackers have been at it again. First spotted last year, security firm FireEye has recently noticed a widening target list taking in financial firms, a clutch of governments and even the BBC.

According to FiireEye at the time, attacks stretching as far back as 2011 borrowed the Chinese interest in remote access Trojans to pick off a range of Arab and Israeli targets using the Poison Ivy (PIVY) and XtremeRAT tools.

Now it looks as if the same group returned in April, using much the same methods, tools and even the same command and control, the firm said. What has changed, however, are the targets, which have been expanded to include new Palestinian and Israeli targets, the Governments of Turkey, Slovenia, Macedonia, New Zealand, Latvia, the US, and the UK, an unnamed US finance house, several European government organisations and - wait for it - the BBC.

FireEye doesn't name the country it suspects as being behind the attack, but given the surveillance nature of the organisations being targeted, Iran and Syria look like racing certainties. As for picking on the BBC, it might be easier to say who wouldn't want to attack the Corporation. Most governments hate the BBC.

What Molerats doesn't appear to be is sophisticated, but perhaps it doesn't need to be. The remote access software is always the same, and the habit of using forging digital certificates isn't always skilfully executed.

The hackers do appear to be aware that defenders might know they exist, even sending remote access communications in the clear to avoid having to use known ports that might be blocked by firewalls.

"Molerats campaigns seem to be limited to only using freely available malware; however, their growing list of targets and increasingly evolving techniques in subsequent campaigns are certainly noteworthy," said FireEye's analysis.

By the firm's calculation, the attacks are succeeding in a narrow, targeted way, with perhaps the low hundred of targets clicking on links embedded in specific phishing email campaigns.

If Molerats underlines one thing it is that RAT attacks are no longer the preserve of Chinese attackers.

The region is an growing source for organised, politically-motivated hacking. Only last week an Iranian group said by consultancy iSight Partners to have targeted 2,000 people working for the US Government and military using concocted Facebook and LinkedIn profiles.

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