Suspected supporters of terrorist outfit ISIS and other minority groups in Iran, including Turks and Kurds, are being targeted in a spyware campaign designed to steal a broad range of sensitive data from their smartphones.
While there is not yet clear evidence to point to a particular bad actor behind the campaign, named "Domestic Kitten," the circumstances around the victims and the type of data being stolen point to agencies within the Iranian government as the probable suspects, according to researchers with Check Point Software.
"While the exact identity of the actor behind the attack remains unconfirmed, current observations of those targeted, the nature of the apps and the attack infrastructure involved leads us to believe this operation is of Iranian origin," the researchers wrote in a post on the company blog. "In fact, according to our discussions with intelligence experts familiar with the political discourse in this part of the world, Iranian government entities, such as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Ministry of Intelligence, Ministry of Interior and others, frequently conduct extensive surveillance of these groups."
Such surveillance efforts "are used against individuals and groups that could pose a threat to stability of the Iranian regime," the analysts found. "These could include internal dissidents and opposition forces, as well as ISIS advocates and the Kurdish minority settled mainly in Western Iran."
Lotem Finkelsteen, threat intelligence analysis team leader at Check Point, told Security Now in an email that the Iranian government is well known for its efforts in cyberespionage.
"The Iranians maintain an active cyber campaign that serves the interests of the administration, both against domestic and foreign targets," Finkelsteen said. That includes "attacks we have seen over the years, attacks like Rocket Kitten, which was targeting academic researchers in the field of nuclear engineering, chemistry and physics all over the world, along with diplomats and journalists using spear phishing emails."
With the Domestic Kitten APT campaign, the attackers enticed members of the targeted groups to download the spyware onto their Android devices through mobile applications that looked to be of interest to them.
For example, one app offered an ISIS-branded wallpaper changer, while another promised updates from the ANF Kurdistan news agency. Attackers also used a fake version of the Vidogram messaging app, according to Check Point researchers. (See Android Spyware BusyGasper: Small With Unusual Capabilities.)
"Regarding the ISIS-themed application, its main functionality is setting wallpapers of ISIS pictures, and therefore seems to be targeting the terror organization's advocates," researchers wrote.
The attackers also fabricated the mobile app for the ANF News Agency, which is a legitimate Kurdish news website.
Once downloaded, the malware collects a wide range of information, including SMS/MMS messages, contacts lists, browser history and bookmarks, application lists and clipboard content. Other data gathered include records of phone calls, external storage, geo-location information, camera photos and surrounding voice recordings.
All the data is sent back to command-and-control servers using HTTP POST requests.
In addition, one of the applications also contacts firmwaresystemupdate.com, which the Check Point analysts write is a newly registered site that initially was seen as an Iranian IP address, but then switched to a Russian address.
Iranians are overwhelmingly the target of the campaign, which has so far collected about 240 victims. Ninety-seven percent of victims were Iranians, with others coming from Afghanistan, Iraq and the UK.
"While the number of victims and their characteristics are detailed above, the number of people affected by this operation is actually much higher," the researchers wrote. "This is due to the fact that the full contact list stored in each victim's mobile device, including full names and at least one of their phone numbers, was also harvested by the attackers. In addition, due to phone calls, SMS details, as well as the actual SMS messages, also recorded by the attackers, the private information of thousands of totally unrelated users has also been compromised."
The campaign has been underway since 2016, but stayed undetected "due to the artful deception of its attackers toward their targets," they wrote.
Finkelsteen wrote: "This attack stands out for the numerous applications it involves and the varied targets. Its sophistication is in the social engineering -- luring targeted audience by mobile apps relevant to them. Technically, it borrows code from other known mobile apps, and so it is actually less sophisticated."
The target of smartphones falls in line with research that shows that smartphones continue to be the most vulnerable endpoints for organizations because users are notorious for clicking on bogus apps and websites. A report from endpoint security firm Lookout earlier this year found that among 67 million mobile devices analyzed, the phishing URL click rate jumped 85% a year over the past seven years. (See Smartphones Remain the Most Vulnerable of Endpoints.)
— Jeffrey Burt is a long-time tech journalist whose work has appeared in such publications as eWEEK, The Next Platform and Channelnomics.