Microsoft says Iranian hackers targeted a US presidential campaign
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Microsoft says Iranian hackers targeted a US presidential campaign

Tech giant declines to identify affected candidate, says owners of 4 breached accounts have been notified

Illustrative: A cybersecurity expert stands in front of a map of Iran as he speaks to journalists about the techniques of Iranian hacking, September 20, 2017, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)
Illustrative: A cybersecurity expert stands in front of a map of Iran as he speaks to journalists about the techniques of Iranian hacking, September 20, 2017, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)

Microsoft said Friday that hackers linked to the Iranian government have targeted a US presidential campaign in recent weeks, as well as government officials, media targets and prominent expatriate Iranians.

Overall, the hackers attempted to penetrate 241 accounts — four successfully — though none of those penetrated was associated with presidential campaigns or current or past US officials, Microsoft said. A company spokeswoman declined to identify those targeted, citing customer privacy.

The announcement is the latest sign that foreign governments are looking for ways to potentially disrupt the 2020 presidential election. US intelligence officials have sounded the alarm about the risks for months.

In a blogpost released Friday, Microsoft’s Tom Burt, corporate vice president for customer security and trust, said that owners of four accounts that were compromised by the hackers have been notified.

This photo from July 3, 2014, shows the Microsoft Corp. logo outside the Microsoft Visitor Center in Redmond, Washington. (AP Photo Ted S. Warren, File)

The attacks by a group Microsoft calls Phosphorous occurred during a 30-day period between August and September.

Burt said the Iranian hackers used password reset and account recovery features to try to take over accounts. For example, they gathered phone numbers belonging to targets to help with a password reset.

The hackers researched their targets, making more than 2,700 attempts to identify emails belonging to a specific Microsoft customer. A spokeswoman declined to provide more details.

The cyber offensive is the latest chapter in the US and Iran’s ongoing cyber operations targeting the other.

In June, cybersecurity firms said Iran has increased its offensive cyberattacks against the US government and critical infrastructure as tensions have grown between the two nations.

Hackers believed to be working for the Iranian government have targeted US government agencies, as well as sectors of the economy, including oil and gas, sending waves of spear-phishing emails, according to representatives of cybersecurity companies CrowdStrike and FireEye, which regularly track such activity.

Iran has long targeted the US oil and gas sectors and other critical infrastructure, but those efforts dropped significantly after the nuclear agreement was signed. After US President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the deal in May 2018, cyber experts said they have seen an increase in Iranian hacking efforts.

US President Donald Trump speaks to the press as he departs the White House in Washington, DC, for Florida on October 3, 2019. (Jim Watson/AFP)

The US has had a contentious cyber history with Iran.

In 2010, the so-called Stuxnet virus disrupted the operation of thousands of centrifuges at a uranium enrichment facility in Iran. Iran accused the US and Israel of trying to undermine its nuclear program through covert operations.

Iran has also shown a willingness to conduct destructive campaigns. Iranian hackers in 2012 launched an attack against state-owned oil company Saudi Aramco, releasing a virus that erased data on 30,000 computers and left an image of a burning American flag on screens.

In 2016, the US indicted Iranian hackers for a series of punishing cyberattacks on US banks and a small dam outside of New York City.

Tensions have risen in the Persian Gulf since May last year when Trump unilaterally abandoned the nuclear deal between major powers and Iran and began reimposing crippling sanctions in a campaign of “maximum pressure.”

They flared again this May when Iran began reducing its own commitments under the deal and the US deployed military assets to the region.

Since then, ships have been attacked, drones downed and oil tankers seized. This month, twin attacks on Saudi oil infrastructure, which knocked out half the kingdom’s production, drew accusations of blame from Washington and Europe.

Tehran has denied any involvement in the attacks which were claimed by Iran-backed rebels fighting a Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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