State-sponsored actors have a number of different techniques at their disposal to remotely gain access to social media and secure messaging applications. Starting in 2017 and continuing through 2018, Cisco Talos has seen different techniques being used to attack users and steal their private information. These techniques used fake login pages, malicious apps disguised as their legitimate counterparts and BGP hijacking, and were specifically targeting Iranian users of the secure messaging app Telegram and the social media site Instagram.

Telegram has become a popular target for greyware in Iran, as the app is used by an estimated 40 million users. While it’s mostly used for daily communication, protest organizers also used it in the past to organize demonstrations against the Iranian government, specifically in December 2017. In a few instances, the Iranian government asked Telegram to shut down certain channels for “promoting violence.” The tactics outlined in this post have been in use since 2017 in an effort to gather information about Telegram and Instagram users. The campaigns vary in complexity, resource needs and methods. Below, we outline examples of a network attack, application clones and classic phishing. It is our belief that these campaigns were used to specifically target Iranian users of the Telegram app in an effort to steal personal and login information.



Talos Group

Talos Security Intelligence & Research Group