Microsoft uncovers USA election hacking plot by Iranian agencies

Hooded man holds laptop computer as blue screen with an exclamation mark is projected on him

A hacking group that appears to be linked to the Iranian government attempted to break into President Donald Trump's re-election campaign, but did not succeed, sources familiar with the operation said on Friday.

"The targeted accounts are associated with a United States presidential campaign, current and former U.S. government officials, journalists covering global politics and prominent Iranians living outside Iran", Microsoft said.

Phosphorus had tried to gain access to Microsoft customer email 2,700 times.

Microsoft did not identify the election campaign whose network was targeted by Phosphorous hackers.

As to why it released the information publicly, Microsoft said that there were two reasons: first that "we all - governments and private sector - are increasingly transparent about nation-state attacks and efforts to disrupt democratic processes;" and second that "publishing this information should help others be more vigilant and take steps to protect themselves".

Microsoft's allegations also come amid heightened tensions between Tehran and Washington since President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from a 2015 global nuclear agreement. The company described the attacks in a blog post on Friday.

USA tech companies including Microsoft, Facebook, and Twitter have been under pressure to ramp up security for next year's US presidential election and other polls around the world.

Notably, Microsoft says the hacking efforts were "not technically sophisticated" but used personal information gathered elsewhere to try to prompt password reset or account recovery in an effort to get into the accounts.

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.

Nevertheless, the tech company called Phosphorus, also known as APT 35, "highly motivated and willing to invest significant time and resources engaging in research and other means of information gathering". Some of those accounts similarly took aim at US policymakers and journalists, researchers said at the time.

On Tuesday, the Democratic National Committee sent a security alert to 2020 campaigns about the attempt.

Burt told a July security conference the company had evidence Russian, Iranian and North Korean hackers were involved in cyberattacks against nongovernment organizations and think tanks working closely with political campaigns.

In July, Burt said Microsoft had flagged almost 800 cyberattacks suspected of being carried out by nation-states on political organizations.

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