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Malicious Apps Spoof Israeli Attack Detectors: Conflict Goes Mobile

A spoofed version of an Israeli rocket-attack alerting app is targeting Android devices, in a campaign that shows how cyber-espionage attacks are shifting to individual, everyday citizens.

The Israeli flag next to a smartphone
Source: Pixel-shot via Alamy Stock Photo

Using a trending item as a malicious lure is relatively common; to do it in a period of military conflict and deliberately target users in the affected region is a different step.

Recently, a genuine app — RedAlert - Rocket Alerts — has been popular among users in the Israel and Gaza region, since it allows individuals to receive timely and precise alerts about incoming airstrikes. However, a malicious, spoofed version of the app was detected last week, which collected personal information including access to contacts, call logs, SMS, account information, and an overview of other installed apps.

This and the discovery of a similar incident indicates that unfortunately, the Israel-Hamas conflict's cybercrimes will extend beyond nation-state attacks on critical infrastructure — and into the palm of the user's hand.

The Initial Malicious App

According to the discovery by Cloudflare, the website hosting the malicious file was created on Oct. 12, and it has been taken offline since. Only those users who installed the Android version of the app are impacted, and they are urgently advised to delete the app.

A statement from Cloudflare said it became aware of a website hosting a Google Android Application that impersonated the legitimate RedAlert - Rocket Alerts application. "Given the current climate in Israel, this application is heavily relied upon by individuals living in the country to be notified when it is critical to seek safety," it said.

The creation of a malicious app spoofing a known brand is common, according to a recent report from Arctic Wolf, which said malicious apps found in official app stores are often disguised with the use of names, images, or descriptions similar to popular or malware-free apps. They also may have fake reviews to help increase the malicious app's rating and to make them look more realistic.

But in this case, the malicious application mimicked a widely used app to steal data, in what Cloudflare called "a time of distress" where services such as this are replied upon, adding that this is "another example of threat attackers leveraging authenticity to carry out impactful attacks."

Casey Ellis, founder and CTO of Bugcrowd, says he does expect to see more cases like this where the Gaza conflict is used as a malware lure — both regionally and globally.

"Attackers are always on the lookout for events that create fear, uncertainty, and a volatile information environment, and the Israel-Hamas conflict definitely meets these criteria," he says.

Cloudflare was unable to add attribution to whoever was behind this malicious app, and there is no evidence that this was even a threat actor from the Middle East. So this could be the work of an unrelated cybercriminal looking to use the conflict for their malicious gain.

More Than One Incident

In a separate detection, Cloudflare said the pro-Palestinian hacktivist group AnonGhost exploited a vulnerability in another application, Red Alert: Israel. This allowed the group to intercept requests, expose servers and APIs, and send fake alerts to some app users, including a message that a nuclear bomb strike was imminent.

In its detection of that incident, Group-IB Threat Intelligence said this shows that the actions of attackers can be diverse, as hacktivists are generally associated with conducting small-scale DDoS attacks and defacement. But as the ongoing conflict shows, sometimes their actions can be far more devastating and costly, and "it's essential to map and properly mitigate the risk of hacktivism as part of a threat intelligence program."

Krishna Vishnubhotla, vice president of product strategy at Zimperium, says spoofing mobile apps is easy, as many app teams are inadvertently giving threat actors a blueprint for abuse.

He says, "App teams focus on code optimization and speed to market, but never ensure sufficient threat visibility and protection for their apps once they are published. Threat actors know this and use reverse engineering to truly understand an app's inner workings."

Vishnubhotla adds, "Knowing an application's architecture, data flow, and security mechanisms allows a hacker to easily create spoofed apps."

Be Careful With Clicks

The advice to avoid becoming victimized by these types of attacks is fairly straightforward. Arctic Wolf recommend checking the app's developers and reviews, restricting permissions when necessary; users should download apps only from reputable developers and look for mentions of scams or malicious activity mentioned in reviews by other users.

The advice from Group-IB was for organizations to carefully examine and fortify all Web-facing applications, as "it's not uncommon for hacktivists to exploit web and mobile APIs, often perceived as softer targets compared to the principal product APIs."

Ellis admits his advice on protection from malicious apps — saying users should trust, but verify — is nothing groundbreaking, but it persists for a reason.

"Double-check before you trust anything that offers to assist you in issues of personal safety, and triple-check before you share it with others," he says. He acknowledges that in this case, the malicious apps were downloaded by people in a state of concern and potentially without the due consideration they would usually give to vetting them.

About the Author(s)

Dan Raywood, Senior Editor, Dark Reading

With more than 20 years experience of B2B journalism, including 12 years covering cybersecurity, Dan Raywood brings a wealth of experience and information security knowledge to the table. He has covered everything from the rise of APTs, nation-state hackers, and hacktivists, to data breaches and the increase in government regulation to better protect citizens and hold businesses to account. Dan is based in the U.K., and when not working, he spends his time stopping his cats from walking over his keyboard and worrying about the (Tottenham) Spurs’ next match.

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