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4/6/2017
10:15 AM
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Pegasus For Android Spyware Just As Lethal As iOS Version

Researchers from Lookout, Google describe it as highly sophisticated tool for targeted surveillance purposes.

Last year when security firm Lookout and the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab disclosed details of a particularly pernicious iOS spyware product called Pegasus, one unanswered question was whether an Android version of the software was available.

The answer, it turns out somewhat unsurprisingly, is a resounding ‘Yes.’

Lookout and Google this week released details of an Android version of Pegasus, which like the original appears to have been designed for highly targeted surveillance operations and lawful intercepts.

As with the iOS version, Pegasus for Android packs a boatload of nasty capabilities - including the ability to log keystrokes, capture screenshots and live audio, and read messages sent via apps like WhatsApp, Skype, and Facebook. It can also steal email from Android’s native email client and pilfer browser histories, text messages and contact details from infected devices.

One of the software’s more sinister features is its ability to use an infected device’s microphone and camera to spy on activities in the immediate vicinity.

Among the many features that make it one of the most lethal mobile endpoint threats ever is a self-destruct capability that causes the malware to obliterate itself under certain conditions.

For example, the malware self-destructs if it lands on a device with an invalid SIM Mobile Country Code ID, or on one in which an antidote file exists, Lookout said. Similarly, the malware commits suicide if it is unable to connect with a command-and-control server for a period of 60 days or if it is commanded to do so by the server.

Android for Pegasus is another indication that mobile devices have become the surveillance tool of choice for nation state-level attackers in sophisticated, targeted attacks, says Kristy Edwards, director of security product management at Lookout. The iOS version of the spyware for instance was used to spy on human rights activists and journalists in at least two countries.

“Users should be aware that their mobile devices [could] be turned into a tool for espionage,” she says. “It’s extremely important to install security patches as they become available, be careful about clicking on links like those delivered in email, SMS, Whatsapp, Facebook messages or any messaging app.”

The author of the malware is NSO Group, the same Israel-based maker of mobile surveillance software that was responsible for creating the iOS version of Pegasus as well.

Google, which calls the threat Chrysaor, this week described it as malware that was used in targeted attacks against a small number of Android users.

In an alert, security researchers from Google said they discovered the malware installed on less than three-dozen Android devices after Lookout warned the company about the malware last year.

A Google chart of the countries where the infected devices were discovered shows that Pegasus for Android so far at least has been used mostly to spy on individuals based in Israel. Other countries where infected devices surfaced include Georgia, Mexico, and Turkey. All Android users are currently protected against the threat.

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One major difference between the Pegasus version for iOS and the one for Android is that the latter does not use any zero-day flaws to root an Android device. Pegasus for iOS exploited a trio of zero-day vulnerabilities collectively dubbed "Trident" to jailbreak iOS devices. Pegasus for Android instead uses a known rooting technique dubbed Framaroot to break into a system.

It’s unclear how exactly devices get infected. “We speculate that users are phished or social engineered and convinced to download a malicious APK without their knowledge,” says Edwards. “We saw this before with Pegasus for iOS and have seen it more recently in ViperRat and related attacks.”

According to Google, once Chrysaor is installed on a device it can spy on all user activities on the device and also within the immediate vicinity using the device microphone and camera and via logging and tracking applications. Chrysaor is even capable of answering phone calls silently and staying connected in the background so the caller can hear conversations that are taking place nearby and of quickly resetting everything back to normal if the user picks up the phone to interact with it, the Google researchers noted.

The software is capable of escalating privileges on an infected device and breaking out the application sandbox. Once it gains elevated privileges it takes multiple measures to gain persistence, for instance by installing itself in such a way as to resist factory resets or by disabling auto-updates.

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Jai Vijayan is a seasoned technology reporter with over 20 years of experience in IT trade journalism. He was most recently a Senior Editor at Computerworld, where he covered information security and data privacy issues for the publication. Over the course of his 20-year ... View Full Bio

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