A hacking group that appears to be linked to the Iranian government targeted a United States 2020 presidential campaign, Microsoft Corp said on Friday.
Microsoft saw “significant” activity by the group that also targeted current and former US government officials, journalists covering global politics and prominent Iranians living outside Iran, the company said in a blog post.
In a 30-day period between August and September, the group, called “Phosphorous” by the company, made more than 2,700 attempts to identify consumer email accounts belonging to specific customers and then attacked 241 of those accounts.
Hacking to interfere in elections has become a concern for governments especially since US intelligence agencies concluded that Russia ran a hacking and propaganda operation to disrupt the American democratic process in 2016 to help then-Republican candidate Donald Trump become president. Moscow has denied any interference.
In addition, tensions between the US and Iran have risen since May 2018 when Trump withdrew from a 2015 international nuclear accord with Tehran that put limits on its nuclear programme in exchange for easing of sanctions. Trump has since re-instated US sanctions, putting increased pressure on the Iranian economy, including its oil trade.
The Iranian government did not issue an immediate comment through state-run media on Microsoft’s statement of any link to Phosphorous.
Microsoft said Phosphorous used information gathered from researching their targets or other means to game password reset or account recovery features and attempt to take over some targeted accounts.
The attacks disclosed by the company on Friday were not technically sophisticated, the blog said. Hackers tried to use a significant amount of personal information to attack targets, it said.
“This effort suggests Phosphorous is highly motivated and willing to invest significant time and resources engaging in research and other means of information gathering,” the software company said in a blog post.
Microsoft declined to identify the campaign targeted, citing privacy concerns.
In its blog post, Microsoft said that owners of four accounts that were successfully breached have been notified. The company said those accounts that were comprised were not related to US campaigns or officials.
Microsoft has been tracking Phosphorus since 2013 and said in March that it had received a court order to take control of 99 websites the group used to execute attacks.
Phosphorus is also known as APT 35, Charming Kitten, and Ajax Security Team, according to Microsoft.