Opposition activists in Asia and Africa targeted by spyware developed by Western companies

Posted by   Virus Bulletin on   May 2, 2013

Mozilla angry about use of its brand and logo.

A new report has been released on the commercialization of digital spying, which thoroughly analyses a number of pieces of spyware developed by Western companies and used to target opposition activists in various countries in Africa and Asia.

CitizenLab, a research institute linked to the University of Toronto, has released the report, in which it brings together various recent pieces of research on the commercial spyware market.

Attribution of malware is notoriusly difficult. But there are exceptions, such as FinFisher, which is developed by Gamma International, a software firm with branches in the UK and Germany. The spyware even can be purchased from the company's website, though it is believed the company mainly sells to governments. (If you are a government, it is rumoured that you don't need to have a clean record on human rights to be able to purchase it.)

FinFisher is advertised as a 'remote monitoring solution' and, indeed, that is what the sample sent to a Bahraini activist does: it captures keystrokes, audio, screenshots and data and from the device on which it is running and sends these off to a remote server. For this purpose, FinFisher uses a large, distributed network of servers that are constantly changing: many command and control servers identified as such by CitizenLab in a March report have since gone quiet.

Of course, those with FinFisher running on their devices would rather not have it there, so the program goes to great lengths to hide its activity, both from researchers and from anti-malware software. The way it does so depends on the anti-malware sofware running on the system, and in some cases even on the version used.

Activists, like most people these days, are frequent users of mobile devices, and the spyware is tailored for that as well. Researchers found and analysed mobile trojans for each of the five most popular mobile operating systems - iOS, Android, Blackberry, Symbian and Windows Mobile. The trojans were all consistent in functionality with 'FinSpy mobile', a component of the FinFisher toolkit.

Of course, FinFisher is not the only one of its kind. The CitizenLab report also looks at a backdoor, first identified as 'Da Vinci' by Dr. Web in July 2012 and later called 'Crisis' by several other vendors, which has been used to target activists in Morocco and the UAE, among other places. It is believed to have been written and sold by Hacking Team, a company based in Italy.

Interestingly, an at-the-time zero-day vulnerability used to infect an opposition activist in the UAE was later made public by a researcher from French firm VUPEN, which is best known for regularly snatching prizes at the Pwn2Own hacking contests. This could indicate that VUPEN sold the vulnerability to Hacking Team (which wouldn't be surprising, given that the company's business model is based on selling such vulnerabilities), though of course it could also have been discovered independently.

The activities of Gamma International and Hacking Team have led to fierce criticism from privacy and civil rights activists. But they are not the only ones unhappy with such activities.

On its blog, Firefox developer Mozilla has spoken out strongly against the fact that FinFisher masquerades as an update for the browser and uses its brand and logo. The company has sent a 'cease and desist' letter to Gamma International.

CitizenLab's 100+ page report, which is well worth reading, can be downloaded from the group's blog here.

For those interested in the subject, VB2013 will feature a presentation on 'business-to-government malware' by Kaspersky's Sergey Golovanov and Denis Maslennikov, which will focus on the activities on the two companies mentioned.

VB2013 takes place 2-4 October 2013 in Berlin, Germany. Registration is available here.

Posted on 02 May 2013 by Martijn Grooten

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