When mass-produced electronic spying programs became widely known by the public, many email providers, businesses, and individuals started to use data encryption. Some of them have implemented forced encryption solutions to server connections, while others went further and implemented end-to-end encryption for data transmission as well as server storage.
Unfortunately, albeit important, said measures did not solve the core problem. Well, the original architectural design used in emails allows for metadata to be read as plain text on both sent and received messages. Said metadata includes recipient, sender, sent/receipt date, subject, message size, whether there are attachments, and the email client used to send out the message, among other data.
This information is enough for someone behind targeted campaigns attacks to reconstruct a time line for conversations, learn when people communicate with one another, what they talk about, and how often they communicate. Using this information to fill in the gaps, threat actors are able to learn enough about their targets.
In addition to the above, technologies are evolving, so something that is encrypted today may be easily decrypted a few years later, sometimes only months later, depending on how strong the encryption key is and how fast technologies are developing.
Said scenario has made people move away from email exchanges when it comes to confidential conversations. Instead, they started using secure mobile messaging applications with end-to-end encryption, no server storage and timed deletion. On the one hand, these applications manage strong data and connection encryptions. On the other hand, they manage auto deletion on cell phones and provider servers. Finally, they practically have no metadata or are impersonal, thus not allowing identifiers about targets or data correlation. This way, conversations are truly kept confidential, safe, and practical.
Naturally, this scenario has made threat actors develop implants for mobile devices since, from a hacking perspective, they address all the aforementioned technical limitations―that is, the inability to intercept conversations between users who have migrated to these secure mobile messaging applications. What is an implant? This is an interesting terminology invented by the very same threat actors behind targeted attacks. We saw it for the first time during the Careto campaign we announced a few years ago.
Now we will analyze some implants developed by HackingTeam to infect mobile devices running on iOS (Apple), Android, Blackberry, and Windows Mobile. HackingTeam isn’t the only group developing mobile implants. There are several campaigns with different roots, which have been investing in the development of mobile malware and used it in targeted attacks at the regional and international level.
Implants for Androids
Android-based phones are more affordable and, consequently, more popular worldwide. That is why threat actors responsible for targeted attacks have Android phones as their #1 priority and have developed implants for this operating system in particular.
Let’s analyze what one of these implants is capable of.
It is well known that the encryption algorithm used in text messages is weak. It is safe to assume that practically all text messages sent are susceptible to interception. That is precisely why many users have been using instant messaging programs. In the coding fragment above, we can see how threat actors are able to obtain access to the messaging database used by WeChat, a mobile application for text message exchange.
Let’s assume that the messaging application being used by the victim is really secure and has applied a strong end-to-end encryption, but all messages sent and received are stored locally. In said case, threat actors would still have the ability to decode these messages. Well, when they steal a database along with the encryption key that is stored within the victim’s device, threat actors behind these attacks can decrypt all contents. This includes all database elements, not only the text information, but also geographic locations shared, pictures, files, and other data.
Besides, threat actors have the ability to manipulate the camera on the device. They can even take pictures of the victim for identity confirmation. This also correlates with other data, such as the wireless network provider that the phone is connected to.
Actually, it doesn’t matter what application the victim is using. Once the mobile end point is infected, threat actors are able to read all messages sent and received by the victim. In the following code segments, we can see the instructions used to interact with messaging applications Viber and WhatsApp.
If a mobile devices is compromised with an implant, the rule becomes very simple – if you read a secure text message on your screen, the threat actor behind that implant, reads it too.
Implants for iOS
Undoubtedly, Apple mobile devices also enjoy a large market share. In some markets, they are certainly more popular than Android devices.
Apple has managed the safety architecture of its devices very well. However, it doesn’t make them completely immune to malware attacks, especially when there are high-profile threat actors involved.
There are several infection vectors for these devices. Likewise, when high-profile targets are selected, threat actors behind these targeted attacks may apply infection techniques that use exploits whose costs are higher―hundreds of thousands of dollars―but highly effective, as well. When targets are of an average profile, less sophisticated, but equally effective infection techniques are used. For example, we would point to malware installations from a previously infected computer when a mobile device is connected through a USB port.
What technical abilities do iOS implants have? Let’s see the following implant example:
This Trojan infects iOS devices as they are being charged by the victim of the attack by using a previous Jailbreak made to the device. In other words, if targets usually charge their cell phones using a USB cable, the pre-infected computer may force a complete Jailbreak on the device and, once the process is complete, the aforementioned implant is installed.
In this code, you can see that the attacker is able to infected the device and confirm the victim’s identity. This is a crucial step during targeted attacks, since threat actors behind this kind of attacks wouldn’t want to infect the wrong victim and―worse yet―lose control of their implant and spoil the entire operation, thus exposing their attack to the public.
Consequently, one of the technical abilities of these implants is to verify the phone number of their victim, along with other data to make sure they’re not targeting the wrong person.
Among other preliminary surveying actions, this implant also verifies the name of the mobile device and the exact model, battery status, Wi-Fi connection data, and the IMEI number, which is unique to each device.
Why would they check the battery status? Well, there are several reasons for that, the main one of them being that data can be transferred through the internet to the hacker’s server as this information is extracted from an infected device. When phones are connected to the internet, be it through a data plan or Wi-Fi connection, the battery drains faster than normal. If threat actors extract data at an unsuitable moment, the victim could easily notice that there’s something wrong with the phone, since the battery would be hot and start draining faster than normal. That is the reason why threat actors would rather extract information from victims―especially heavy data like photos or videos―at a moment when their battery is being charged and the cell phone is connected to the Wi-Fi.
A key part of spying techniques is to combine a victim’s real world with the digital world they live in. In other words, the objective is not only to steal information stored in the cell phone, but also to spy conventional conversations carried out off line. How do they do it? By enabling the front camera and microphone on hacked devices. The problem is that, if the cell phone isn’t in silent or vibrate mode, it will make a particular sound as a picture is taken with the camera. How to resolve it? Well, implants have a special setting that disables camera sounds.
Once the victim is confirmed, the hacker once again starts to compile the information they are interested in. The coding below shows that threat actors are interested in the Skype conversations their victims are having.
This way, threat actors have complete control over their victims’ conversations. In this example, Skype is the messaging application being used by threat actors, but it could actually be any application of their choice, including those considered very secure apps. As mentioned above, the weakest link is the mobile end point and, once it is compromised, there is no need to even crack any encryption algorithm, no matter how strong it may be.
Implants for Blackberry
Some targets may use Blackberry phones, which are known to be one of the most secure operating systems in the market. Even though they are safer, threat actors behind targeted attacks don’t lag behind and they have their arsenal ready.
This implant is characterized by a strong code obfuscation technique. Analyzing it is complex task. When we look at the code, we can clearly see that even though the implant comes from the same threat actor, the developer belongs to another developer group. It’s as if a specific group were in charge of developing implants for this operating system in particular.
What actions may these implants develop in an infected Blackberry device? Well, there are several possible actions:
- Checking the Battery Status
- Tracking the victim’s geographic location
- Detecting when a SIM card is replaced
- Reading text messages stored within the device
- Compiling a list of calls made and received by the device.
Once Blackberry phones start to use the Android operating system, threat actors will have a farther-reaching operation.
Implants for Windows Mobile
Windows Mobile aren’t necessarily the most popular operating system for mobile devices in the market, but it is the native OS used by Nokia devices, which are preferred by people looking for quality and a solid track history. There is a possibility that some targets may use this operating system, and that is why the development of implants for Windows Mobile devices is underway as well. Next, we will see the technical scope of implants for Windows Mobile devices.
When infecting a victim’s mobile device, this implant is hidden under a dynamic library file by the name bthclient.dll, which is supposedly a Bluetooth driver.
The technical abilities of these implants are practically limitless. Threat actors may develop several actions, such as checking:
- A list of apps installed,
- The name of the Wi-Fi access point to which the victim is connected,
- Clipboard content that usually contains information of interest to the victim and, consequently, to the attacker.
Threat actors may even be able to learn the name of the APN that victims connect to while using the data plan through their provider.
Additionally, threat actors can actively monitor specific applications, such as the native email client and communications hub being used by a Windows Mobile device to process the victim’s communication data.
Considering the explanation in the introduction, it is probable that the most sensitive conversations take place in secure end-to-end mobile applications and not necessarily emails sent with PGP. Threat actors are aware of it, and that is why they have been actively working not only on developing implants for desktop computers, but also for mobile devices. We can say for sure that threat actors enjoy multiple benefits when they infect a mobile device, instead of a traditional computer. Their victims are always carrying their cell phones with them, so these devices contain information that their work computers won’t. Besides, mobile devices are usually less protected from a technological point of view, and victims oftentimes don’t believe their cell phones could ever become infected.
Despite a strong data encryption, a compromised mobile end point is completely exposed to spying, since threat actors have the same ability to read messages as users themselves. Threat actors don’t need to struggle with encryption algorithms, nor intercept data at the network layer level. They simply read this information the same way, as their victim would.
Mobile implants don’t belong to the group of massive attacks launched by cybercriminals; they are actually targeted attacks in which victims are carefully selected before the attack. What Makes You A Target?
There are several factors involved in being a target, including whether you are a politically exposed person, have contacts of interest to threat actors, are working on a secret or sensitive project that is also of interest, among others. One thing is certain: if you’re targeted by such an attack, the probability of infection is very high.
Everything we’re seeing now is a battle for numbers. You cannot decide whether you’ll become a victim, but one thing you could do is elevate the cost of such an attack to the point that threat actors might give up and move on to a less expensive target who is more tangible in terms of time invested and risk of the exploit campaign being discovered. How Can Someone Elevate the Cost of an Attack? Here is a set of best practices and habits in general. Each case is unique, but the main idea is to make threat actors lack motivation once it becomes too laborious to carry out their operation, thus increasing their risk of failure.
Among the basic recommendations to improve the security of our mobile devices, we could highlight the following:
- Always use a VPN connection to connect to the Internet. This will help making your network traffic not easily interceptable and susceptible to malware that could be directly injected into a legitimate application being downloaded from the internet.
- Do not charge your mobile devices using a USB port connected to a computer. The best thing you can do is to plug your phone directly into the AC power adapter.
- Install an anti-malware program. It has to be the best one. It seems that the future of these solutions lies precisely in the same technologies already implemented for desktop security: Default Deny and Allowlisting.
- Protect your devices with a password, not a PIN. If the PIN is found, threat actors may gain physical access to your mobile device and install the implant without your knowledge.
- Use encryption in the data storage memories implemented by your mobile devices. This advice is especially current for devices that allow for memory disks extraction. If threat actors extract your memory by connecting it to another device, they’ll also be able to easily manipulate your operating system and your data in general.
- Do NOT Jailbreak your device, especially if you’re not very sure what it implies.
- Don’t use second-hand cell phones that may already come with pre-installed implants. This piece of advice is especially important if your cell phone comes from someone you’re not very familiar with.
- Always keep the operating system in your mobile device updated and install the latest upgrade as soon as it becomes available.
- Review all processes being executed in your device memory.
- Review all authorized apps in your system and disable the automatic data submission function for logs and other service data, even if the communication is between your cell phone and your provider.
- Finally, keep in mind that, without a doubt, conventional conversations in a natural environment are always safer than those carried out electronically.