CitizenLab is reporting on Iranian hacking attempts against activists, which include a real-time man-in-the-middle attack against Google’s two-factor authentication.
This report describes an elaborate phishing campaign against targets in Iran’s diaspora, and at least one Western activist. The ongoing attacks attempt to circumvent the extra protections conferred by two-factor authentication in Gmail, and rely heavily on phone-call based phishing and “real time” login attempts by the attackers. Most of the attacks begin with a phone call from a UK phone number, with attackers speaking in either English or Farsi.
The attacks point to extensive knowledge of the targets’ activities, and share infrastructure and tactics with campaigns previously linked to Iranian threat actors. We have documented a growing number of these attacks, and have received reports that we cannot confirm of targets and victims of highly similar attacks, including in Iran. The report includes extra detail to help potential targets recognize similar attacks. The report closes with some security suggestions, highlighting the importance of two-factor authentication.
The report quotes my previous writing on the vulnerabilities of two-factor authentication:
As researchers have observed for at least a decade, a range of attacks are available against 2FA. Bruce Schneier anticipated in 2005, for example, that attackers would develop real time attacks using both man-in-the-middle attacks, and attacks against devices. The”real time” phishing against 2FA that Schneier anticipated were reported at least 9 years ago.
Today, researchers regularly point out the rise of “real-time” 2FA phishing, much of it in the context of online fraud. A 2013 academic article provides a systematic overview of several of these vectors. These attacks can take the form of theft of 2FA credentials from devices (e.g. “Man in the Browser” attacks), or by using 2FA login pages. Some of the malware-based campaigns that target 2FA have been tracked for several years, are highly involved, and involve convincing targets to install separate Android apps to capture one-time passwords. Another category of these attacks works by exploiting phone number changes, SIM card registrations, and badly protected voicemail