Friday, August 26, 2016

OpenStack 08/27/2016 (a.m.)

  • Tags: surveillance state, iPhone-exploit, exploits

    • 1. Executive Summary

      Ahmed Mansoor is an internationally recognized human rights defender, based in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and recipient of the Martin Ennals Award (sometimes referred to as a “Nobel Prize for human rights”).  On August 10 and 11, 2016, Mansoor received SMS text messages on his iPhone promising “new secrets” about detainees tortured in UAE jails if he clicked on an included link. Instead of clicking, Mansoor sent the messages to Citizen Lab researchers.  We recognized the links as belonging to an exploit infrastructure connected to NSO Group, an Israel-based “cyber war” company that sells Pegasus, a government-exclusive “lawful intercept” spyware product.  NSO Group is reportedly owned by an American venture capital firm, Francisco Partners Management.

      The ensuing investigation, a collaboration between researchers from Citizen Lab and from Lookout Security, determined that the links led to a chain of zero-day exploits (“zero-days”) that would have remotely jailbroken Mansoor’s stock iPhone 6 and installed sophisticated spyware.  We are calling this exploit chain Trident.  Once infected, Mansoor’s phone would have become a digital spy in his pocket, capable of employing his iPhone’s camera and microphone to snoop on activity in the vicinity of the device, recording his WhatsApp and Viber calls, logging messages sent in mobile chat apps, and tracking his movements.  

      We are not aware of any previous instance of an iPhone remote jailbreak used in the wild as part of a targeted attack campaign, making this a rare find.

      • The Trident Exploit Chain:

        • CVE-2016-4657: Visiting a maliciously crafted website may lead to arbitrary code execution
        • CVE-2016-4655: An application may be able to disclose kernel memory
        • CVE-2016-4656: An application may be able to execute arbitrary code with kernel privileges

        Once we confirmed the presence of what appeared to be iOS zero-days, Citizen Lab and Lookout quickly initiated a responsible disclosure process by notifying Apple and sharing our findings. Apple responded promptly, and notified us that they would be addressing the vulnerabilities. We are releasing this report to coincide with the availability of the iOS 9.3.5 patch, which blocks the Trident exploit chain by closing the vulnerabilities that NSO Group appears to have exploited and sold to remotely compromise iPhones.

        Recent Citizen Lab research has shown that many state-sponsored spyware campaigns against civil society groups and human rights defenders use “just enough” technical sophistication, coupled with carefully planned deception. This case demonstrates that not all threats follow this pattern.  The iPhone has a well-deserved reputation for security.  As the iPhone platform is tightly controlled by Apple, technically sophisticated exploits are often required to enable the remote installation and operation of iPhone monitoring tools. These exploits are rare and expensive. Firms that specialize in acquiring zero-days often pay handsomely for iPhone exploits.  One such firm, Zerodium, acquired an exploit chain similar to the Trident for one million dollars in November 2015.

        The high cost of iPhone zero-days, the apparent use of NSO Group’s government-exclusive Pegasus product, and prior known targeting of Mansoor by the UAE government provide indicators that point to the UAE government as the likely operator behind the targeting.

        Remarkably, this case marks the third commercial “lawful intercept” spyware suite employed in attempts to compromise Mansoor.  In 2011, he was targeted with FinFisher’s FinSpy spyware, and in 2012 he was targeted with Hacking Team’s Remote Control System.  Both Hacking Team and FinFisher have been the object of several years of revelations highlighting the misuse of spyware to compromise civil society groups, journalists, and human rights workers.


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