Inside The Shadowy World Of Iranian Cyber Espionage Group APT33

Several of the most threatening cybercrime groups today carry the inside industry name of “APT.” APT stands for Advanced Persistent Threat, and an advanced persistent threat (APT) is a clandestine type of cyberattack or group that uses APT techniques in which the attacker gains and maintains unauthorized access to a targeted network and remains undetected for a significant period of time. During the time between infection and remediation, the hacker will often monitor, intercept, and relay information and sensitive data. APTs often use social engineering tactics or exploit software vulnerabilities in organizations with high value information.

Despite having similar names, each “APT” group is distinct with separate history, tactics, and targeting. In our hacker series, we already covered APT 28 (Fancy Bear) and APT 10 (Stone Panda). Today, we focus on APT33.

Who is APT33

APT33, also known as Elfin, is a cyber espionage group operating since at least 2013. APT33 is believed to operate out of the geographic boundaries of the Islamic Republic of Iran and has been linked to attacks on targets in the Middle East, Europe, and the United States. The group’s focus is on gathering intelligence on organizations in the aerospace, energy, and petrochemical sectors, as well as on government agencies and academic institutions.

Sophisticated International Threat

APT33 is significant because its tactics are highly sophisticated and involve the use of custom-built malware and advanced social engineering. The group typically gains access to targets through spear-phishing emails, exploiting vulnerabilities in software, or using stolen login credentials. Once inside a network, APT33 will often spend months or even years mapping out an organization’s systems and stealing sensitive data before exfiltrating it back to its command-and-control servers.

One of the most concerning aspects of APT33’s operations is its use of “watering hole” attacks, which involve compromising a website known to be frequented by a particular group of users. This allows APT33 to infect the computers of its intended targets without the need for spear-phishing emails or other direct methods of attack.

APT33 Targets Matter

While APT33 could conceivably target companies in any industry, a key characteristic of this group’s operations is its focus on specific industries and sectors, particularly those related to aerospace, energy, and petrochemicals. This furthers the evaluation that the group is working on behalf of the Iranian government or the Iranian Republican Guard, working to acquire sensitive technology and intelligence to further its geopolitical goals. Organizations operating in these industries should remain vigilant, and take steps to review sign-in and behavior logs, research threats and anomalies, and sweat the “small stuff” that might be tied to this specific threat group.

The Critical Importance of Understanding This Enemy

It cannot be overstated that cybersecurity enemies are continually evolving and becoming more sophisticated in their tactics and approaches. This makes the challenge of keeping pace more difficult for organizations. However, by understanding the tactics and motivations of cybercriminals it is possible for companies to stay ahead of potential threats and develop effective defense strategies. For example:

  • Understanding cybersecurity enemies can help companies identify potential vulnerabilities, capability gaps, and weaknesses in their security infrastructure.
  • Analyzing past cyberattacks and understanding the motivations behind them allows companies to anticipate potential attacks and take proactive, preventative measures. These can include implementing additional security such as firewalls or intrusion detection systems, or training employees to recognize and avoid common phishing attacks.
  • Understanding cybersecurity enemies can help companies respond more effectively to attacks when they do occur and empower them to develop effective incident response plans to minimize the damage caused by an attack and quickly restore systems and data.

There’s Always More To Do

Organizations face an increasing risk from cybercriminals like APT33, who use advanced tactics to exploit vulnerabilities and compromise digital assets. To safeguard their digital estate and data from such threats, businesses must adopt a multi-layered cybersecurity approach and seek the guidance of security experts. One such expert partner is a Managed Security Services Provider (MSSP) who can offer expertise, technology, and infrastructure to address their security needs, while simultaneously reducing the complexity and cost of managing security in-house.

As cybercriminals continue to evolve and become more sophisticated, it is critical to understand their approaches and motivations. By analyzing past cyberattacks MSSPs can anticipate future attacks and take proactive measures against them. This can include anything from firewalls or intrusion detection systems, to implementing tools like Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence to recognize common phishing attacks or threat hunting. MSSPs have a unique perspective on the threat landscape, as they manage thousands of customers and see threat vectors and attacks ahead of what a single enterprise can see.

Ultimately, the best defense against APT33 and other advanced, persistent threats is a proactive and collaborative approach to cybersecurity informed by a deep understanding of the threat landscape. With the right combination of advanced technology, regular employee training, heightened awareness of potential risks, and partnership with an MSSP, organizations can mitigate the threat of these rogue and dangerous APT groups.

This article was originally published in Forbes, please follow me on LinkedIn.