The IRGC-affiliated actors are actively targeting a broad range of targeted entities
This joint Cybersecurity Advisory (CSA) is the result of an analytic effort among the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), the National Security Agency (NSA), U.S. Cyber Command Cyber National Mission Force (CNMF), the Department of the Treasury (DoT), the Australian Cyber Security Centre (ACSC), the Canadian Centre for Cyber Security (CCCS), and the United Kingdom’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) to highlight continued malicious cyber activity by advanced persistent threat (APT) actors that the authoring agencies assess are affiliated with the Iranian Government’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Note: The IRGC is an Iranian Government agency tasked with defending the Iranian Regime from perceived internal and external threats. Hereafter, this advisory refers to all the coauthors of this advisory as “the authoring agencies.”
This advisory updates joint CSA Iranian Government-Sponsored APT Cyber Actors Exploiting Microsoft Exchange and Fortinet Vulnerabilities in Furtherance of Malicious Activities, which provides information on these Iranian government-sponsored APT actors exploiting known Fortinet® and Microsoft Exchange® vulnerabilities to gain initial access to a broad range of targeted entities in furtherance of malicious activities, including ransom operations. The authoring agencies now judge these actors are an APT group affiliated with the IRGC.
Since the initial reporting of this activity in the FBI Liaison Alert System (FLASH) report APT Actors Exploiting Fortinet Vulnerabilities to Gain Access for Malicious Activity from May 2021, the authoring agencies have continued to observe these IRGC-affiliated actors exploiting known vulnerabilities for initial access. In addition to exploiting Fortinet and Microsoft Exchange vulnerabilities, the authoring agencies have observed these APT actors exploiting VMware Horizon® Log4j vulnerabilities for initial access. The IRGC-affiliated actors have used this access for follow-on activity, including disk encryption and data extortion to support ransom operations.
The IRGC-affiliated actors are actively targeting a broad range of targeted entities, including entities across multiple U.S. critical infrastructure sectors as well as United Kingdom, Australian and Canadian organizations. These actors often operate under the auspices of Najee Technology Hooshmand Fater LLC, based in Karaj, Iran and Afkar System Yazd Company, based in Yazd, Iran. The authoring agencies assess the actors are exploiting known vulnerabilities on unprotected networks rather than targeting specific targeted entities or sectors.
This advisory provides observed tactics and techniques, as well as indicators of compromise (IOCs), that the authoring agencies assess are likely associated with this IRGC-affiliated APT. The authoring agencies urge organizations, especially critical infrastructure organizations, to apply the recommendations listed in the Mitigations section of this advisory to mitigate risk of compromise from these cyber actors affiliated with the IRGC.
Threat Actor Activity
As reported in joint CSA Iranian Government-Sponsored APT Cyber Actors Exploiting Microsoft Exchange and Fortinet Vulnerabilities in Furtherance of Malicious Activities, the authoring agencies have observed Iranian government-sponsored APT actors scanning for and/or exploiting the following known Fortinet FortiOS and Microsoft Exchange server vulnerabilities since early 2021 to gain initial access to a broad range of targeted entities: CVE-2018-13379, CVE-2020-12812, CVE-2019-5591, and CVE-2021-34473 (a ProxyShell vulnerability). The authoring agencies have also observed these APT actors leveraging CVE-2021-34473 against U.S. networks in combination with ProxyShell vulnerabilities CVE-2021-34523 and CVE-2021-31207. Yazd, Iran-based company Afkar System Yazd Company is actively targeting UK organizations. Additionally, ACSC judges that these APT actors have used CVE-2021-34473 in Australia to gain access to systems. The APT actors can leverage this access for further malicious activities, including deployment of tools to support ransom and extortion operations, and data exfiltration.
Since the activity was reported in 2021, these IRGC-affiliated actors have continued to exploit known vulnerabilities for initial access. In addition to exploiting Fortinet and Microsoft Exchange vulnerabilities, the authoring agencies have observed these APT actors exploiting VMware Horizon Log4j vulnerabilities CVE-2021-44228 (“Log4Shell”), CVE-2021-45046, and CVE-2021-45105, for initial access.
The IRGC-affiliated actors have used their access for ransom operations, including disk encryption and extortion efforts. After gaining access to a network, the IRGC-affiliated APT actors likely determine a course of action based on their perceived value of the data. Depending on the perceived value, the actors may encrypt data for ransom and/or exfiltrate data. The actors may sell the data or use the exfiltrated data in extortion operations or “double extortion” ransom operations where a threat actor uses a combination of encryption and data theft to pressure targeted entities to pay ransom demands.
IRGC-affiliated actor activity observed by the authoring agencies includes:
- In December 2021, the actors exploited ProxyShell vulnerabilities (likely CVE-2021-34473, CVE-2021-34523 and CVE-2021-31207), on a Microsoft Exchange server to gain access to the network of a U.S. police department. The actors used their access to move laterally within the network, encrypt network devices with BitLocker, and hold the decryption keys for ransom.
- In December 2021, the actors exploited ProxyShell vulnerabilities (likely CVE-2021-34473, CVE-2021-34523 and CVE-2021-31207), on a Microsoft Exchange server to gain access to the network of a U.S. regional transportation company. The actors used their access to move laterally within the network, encrypt network devices with BitLocker, and hold the decryption keys for ransom. This activity disrupted the transportation company’s operations for an extended period.
- In February 2022, the actors exploited a Log4j vulnerability (likely CVE-2021-44228, CVE-2021-45046 and/or CVE-2021-45105) in a VMware Horizon application to gain access to the network of a U.S. municipal government, move laterally within the network, establish persistent access, initiate crypto-mining operations, and conduct additional malicious activity.
- In February 2022, the actors may have exploited a Log4j vulnerability (likely CVE-2021-44228, CVE-2021-45046 and/or CVE-2021) to gain access to the network of a U.S. aerospace company. The actors leveraged a server the authoring agencies assess is associated with the IRGC-affiliated actors, to exfiltrate data from the company’s network.
The authoring agencies urge network defenders to prepare for and mitigate potential cyber threats immediately by implementing the mitigations below.
Implement and Enforce Backup and Restoration Policies and Procedures
- Maintain offline (i.e., physically disconnected) backups of data, and regularly test backup and restoration. These practices safeguard an organization’s continuity of operations or at least minimize potential downtime from a ransomware or other destructive data incident and protect against data losses.
- Ensure all backup data is encrypted,immutable (i.e., cannot be altered or deleted), and covers the entire organization’s data infrastructure
- Activate BitLocker on all networks and securely backup BitLocker keys with Microsoft and with an independent offline backup.
- Create, maintain, and exercise a basic cyber incident response plan that includes response procedures for a ransom incident.
- Implement a recovery plan to maintain and retain multiple copies of sensitive or proprietary data and servers in a physically separate, segmented, secure location (e.g., hard drive, storage device, the cloud).
Patch and Update Systems
- S. federal, state, local, tribal and territorial (SLTT) government and critical infrastructure organization organizations: Implement free CISA Cyber Hygiene Services Vulnerability Scanning to enable continuous scans of public, static IPs for accessible services and vulnerabilities.
- Install updates/patch operating systems, software, and firmware as soon as updates/patches are released. Regularly check software updates and end-of-life notifications. Consider leveraging a centralized patch management system to automate and expedite the process.
- Immediately patch software affected by vulnerabilities identified in this advisory: CVE-2021-34473, CVE-2018-13379, CVE-2020-12812, CVE-2019-5591, CVE-2021-34523, CVE-2021-31207, CVE-2021-44228, CVE-2021-45046, CVE-2021-45105, CVE-2021-31196, CVE, 2021-31206, CVE-2021-33768, CVE-2021-33766, and CVE-2021-34470.
Evaluate and Update Blocklists and Allowlists
- Regularly evaluate and update blocklists and allowlists.
- If FortiOS is not used by your organization, add the key artifact files used by FortiOS to your organization’s execution blocklist. Prevent any attempts to install or run this program and its associated files.
Implement Network Segmentation
- Implement network segmentation to restrict a malicious threat actor’s lateral movement.
Secure User Accounts
- Audit user accounts with administrative privileges and configure access controls under the principles of least privilege and separation of duties.
- Require administrator credentials to install software.
Implement Multifactor Authentication
- Use multifactor authentication where possible, particularly for webmail, virtual private networks (VPNs), accounts that access critical systems, and privileged accounts that manage backups.
Use Strong Passwords
- Require all accounts with password logins to have strong, unique passwords. See CISA Tip Choosing and Protecting Passwords and National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Special Publication 800-63B: Digital Identity Guidelines for more information.
Secure and Monitor RDP and other Potentially Risky Services
- If you use RDP, restrict it to limit access to resources over internal networks. After assessing risks, if your organization deems RDP operationally necessary, restrict the originating sources, and require MFA to mitigate credential theft and reuse. If RDP must be available externally, use a VPN, virtual desktop infrastructure, or other means to authenticate and secure the connection before allowing RDP to connect to internal devices.
- Disable unused remote access/RDP ports.
- Monitor remote access/RDP logs, enforce account lockouts after a specified number of attempts (to block brute force campaigns), and log RDP login attempts.
Use Antivirus Programs
- Install and regularly update antivirus and anti-malware software on all hosts.
Secure Remote Access
- Only use secure networks.
- Consider installing and using a VPN for remote access.
Validate Security Controls
In addition to applying mitigations, the authoring agencies recommend exercising, testing, and validating your organization’s security program against the threat behaviors mapped to the MITRE ATT&CK for Enterprise framework in this advisory. The authoring agencies recommend testing your existing security controls inventory to assess how they perform against the ATT&CK techniques described in this advisory.
To get started:
- Select an ATT&CK technique described in this advisory.
- Align your security technologies against the technique.
- Test your technologies against the technique.
- Analyze your detection and prevention technologies performance.
- Repeat the process for all security technologies to obtain a set of comprehensive performance data.
- Tune your security program, including people, processes, and technologies, based on the data generated by this process.
The authoring agencies recommend continually testing your security program, at scale, in a production environment to ensure optimal performance against the MITRE ATT&CK techniques identified in this advisory.
Responding to Ransomware or Extortion Incidents
If a ransomware or extortion incident occurs at your organization:
- Follow the Ransomware Response Checklist on p. 11 of the CISA-Multi-State Information Sharing and Analysis Center (MS-ISAC) Joint Ransomware Guide.
- Scan backups. If possible, scan backup data with an antivirus program to check that it is free of malware. This should be performed using an isolated, trusted system to avoid exposing backups to potential compromise.
- Follow the notification requirements as outlined in your cyber incident response plan.
- S. organizations: Report incidents to the FBI at a local FBI Field Office or the FBI 24/7 CyWatch at (855)292-3937 or email@example.com, CISA’s 24/7 Operations Center at firstname.lastname@example.org or (888) 282-0870, or the U.S. Secret Service (USSS) at a USSS Field Office.
- Australian organizations: Visit cyber.gov.au or call 1300 292 371 (1300 CYBER 1) to report cybersecurity incidents and access alerts and advisories.
- Canadian organizations: Report incidents by emailing CCCS at email@example.com.
- United Kingdom organizations: Report a significant cyber security incident: ncsc.gov.uk/report-an-incident (monitored 24 hours) or, for urgent assistance, call 03000 200 973.
- Apply incident response best practices found in the joint Cybersecurity Advisory, Technical Approaches to Uncovering and Remediating Malicious Activity, developed by CISA and the cybersecurity authorities of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom.