(CBS SF) — Iranian hackers created a fake news website and social networking accounts to spy on thousands of U.S. military and political leaders  for over three years, a cyber-intelligence firm said Thursday.

Texas-based iSight Partners uncovered an espionage campaign which targeted more than 2,000 people including a U.S. Navy admiral, U.S. lawmakers and personnel from the U.K. and Middle East.

The hackers went after credentials to access government networks and to gain intelligence on weapon systems and diplomatic negotiations. ISight said the operation, which the company named “Newscaster,” had reportedly gone undetected since 2011.

“If it’s being going on for so long, clearly they have had success,” Tiffany Jones, iSight executive vice president told Reuters.

ISight representatives said they only had “limited knowledge” of what exact information Newscaster was able to obtain during the three years it was operational.

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The Iranian hackers created six personas who appeared to work for a fake news site NewsOnAir.org, which used content from the Associated Press, BBC, Reuters and other media outlets. The hackers created another eight personas who claimed they work for defense contractors, iSight told Reuters.

Using the 14 different personas, hackers connected with their victims by first establishing ties to their friends, colleagues and relatives.

Once connected, the hackers would start sending their targets harmless content, such as links to articles on NewsOnAir.org, to build trust. Then they would send malicious links and software to infect computers, or direct targets to websites that asked for network log-in credentials, according to iSight.

ISight said the victims and the FBI have been notified.

Facebook spokesman told Reuters that the social networking site discovered the hacking attack while investigating suspicious friend requests.

LinkedIn spokesman Doug Madey said the site was investigating the report. Twitter declined to comment, and Google did not respond to a request for comment from Reuters.

Chris Hadnagy, author of “Unmasking the Social Engineer,” told Reuters that Newscaster was the most sophisticated hacking campaign involving social networking sites that has ever been uncovered.



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