Vulnerabilities / Threats
6/26/2013
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Researcher To Demo Spy-Phone At Black Hat

Using the ability to inject malicious code into applications on Android devices, a researcher will demonstrate at Black Hat how to create the infrastructure to spy on mobile users

Security researchers have warned that mobile phones could easily be made into surveillance devices that can track users, record audio and video of their surroundings, and eavesdrop on their communications. Now one researcher plans to show off a proof-of-concept program at the Black Hat Security Briefings this summer that can compromise a phone and turn it into just such an eavesdropping platform.

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The program, created by researchers at network security firm Kindsight, essentially turns any Android phone into a compromised bot, allowing the attacker to eavesdrop on communications, track location, download personal information and take pictures without the victim's knowledge. In addition, the researchers will show how they developed the architecture of the eavesdropping software and ways that it can be easily added as a Trojan Horse to any mobile app.

"This is a demonstration, a proof-of-concept malware," says Kevin McNamee, security architect and director of Kindsight's Security Labs. "We use this as a way to show the capabilities of the malware and show how dangerous cyberespionage can be."

While only a small fraction of U.S. mobile users are impacted by malware, spyware makes up a large portion of the pantheon of mobile threats. As of March 2013, almost two out of every 10 malicious mobile applications qualifies as spyware, according to Juniper Networks' Mobile Threat Center. The company classifies any program that captures and transfer sensitive data on the phone without notifying the user as spyware.

[A spate of research into mobile devices as sensor platforms has shown that compromised smartphones can be turned into insiders -- eavesdropping on phone calls, 'shoulder-surfing' for passwords, or looking around an office. See Mobile Trojans Can Give Attackers An Inside Look.]

In its Third Annual Mobile Threats Report, Juniper described a current threat that could easily be used for espionage by its operators. Known as NotCompatible, the malware turns an Android phone into a compromised node on a botnet, allowing an attacker to gain insider access to a corporate network.

"It is important to note the complexity of these threats varies significantly depending on the sophistication of the attacker," says Michael Callahan, vice president of global security-product marketing at Juniper Networks. "The most complex attacks are capable of leveraging the device to probe into the broader corporate network, while others simply monitor activities on the device."

In the Kindsight demonstration, the researchers will not show off any novel ways of compromising a device, instead relying on a standard phishing attack to convince the victim to install a fake application. However, by creating a trojanized application, the attacker could easily fool the target, if they can convince the victim to install an application from a place other than the Google Play store.

"We can take an application from Google Play, open it up, take it apart, and put this spy-phone service into that application," Kindsight's McNamee says.

The current incarnation of DroidWhisper uses Web-based command-and-control communications to send data and receive instructions from a server on the Internet. However, it could be programmed to exchange information via short message service (SMS) text messaging.

The company stopped short of adding aggressive reconnaissance functionality, McNamee says. By installing network utilities, a phone could be used as a portable network scanner, finding vulnerabilities in corporate networks and infecting additional systems.

"There are some things that we have not taken to the logical extreme," McNamee says. "That is a little bit too over the top."

Companies worried about attackers using employees' mobile devices as eavesdropping platforms should focus on two defensive measures. Inspecting network traffic for signs of malicious traffic can help pinpoint malware that sneaks into a network. And host-based defenses could detect when malware attempts to spread.

"When these personal devices connect to the corporate network, it’s vital that companies also implement secure access controls that can limit the privileges of these devices," says Juniper's Callahan. "These solutions also provide a way to control the types of devices connecting to the network by identifying device type, checking the device’s security posture and then enforcing secure access controls and policies."

Have a comment on this story? Please click "Add Your Comment" below. If you'd like to contact Dark Reading's editors directly, send us a message. Robert Lemos is a veteran technology journalist of more than 16 years and a former research engineer, writing articles that have appeared in Business Week, CIO Magazine, CNET News.com, Computing Japan, CSO Magazine, Dark Reading, eWEEK, InfoWorld, MIT's Technology Review, ... View Full Bio

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