Iran's hackers are stepping up their game, according to a new report from security researchers at FireEye. Earlier this year, an Iranian hacking group called Ajax Security Team targeted US defense contractors at an IEEE aerospace convention, using spear phishing emails to plant keylogging malware on unwitting victims' computers. If the contractors took the bait, installing the phony "proxy" program that was actually Ajax malware, the program would log keystrokes, take periodic screenshots, and automatically extract logins and passwords from browsers and chat programs. Ajax also targeted Iranians trying to bypass the country's oppressive web controls, distributing similar malware bundled with VPN and proxy software like Psiphon and Ultrasurf.

Automatically extracting logins and passwords

In both cases, the Ajax group was going after enemies of the state, but since the group also engages in run-of-the-mill theft, it's unclear where their ultimate loyalties lie. Like the group that hacked the US Navy network earlier this year, they may be more akin to privateers, taking on the government as only one of many clients. As FireEye puts it, "there is a considerable grey area between the cyber espionage capabilities of Iran’s hacker groups and any direct Iranian government or military involvement."

The group first formed in 2010, organizing Anonymous-style web defacement that targeted "anti-revolution and political websites against the Islamic Republic." But as the latest report shows, the group has grown more ambitious in recent months, taking on more ambitious targets with more sophisticated tools. At least one of the malware tools seems to have been custom-built for Ajax, indicating an unusual level of technical skill.