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Microsoft: NSO Group-Like 'QuaDream' Actor Selling Mobile Spyware to Governments

Researchers at Microsoft have discovered links between a threat group tracked as DEV-0196 and an Israeli private-sector company, QuaDream, that sells a platform for exfiltrating data from mobile devices.

Image shows a hand holding a mobile phone with the words "Security Breach" and the image of a lock on the screen
Source: Nico El Nino via Alamy Stock Photo

Microsoft has identified another Israel-based threat organization, similar to NSO Group, that is selling mobile spyware and other cyber espionage tools and services to international governments to monitor and spy on private individuals.

Microsoft Threat Intelligence researchers have discovered links between a threat group they've been tracking as DEV-0196, which offers iOS malware, and a private-sector company called QuaDream that sells a platform for exfiltrating data from mobile devices, researchers said in a blog post published April 11. Without explicitly stating so, the researchers suggested that DEV-0196 and QuaDream are actually one and the same.

"Microsoft Threat Intelligence analysts assess with high confidence that the malware, which we call KingsPawn, is developed by DEV-0196 and therefore strongly linked to QuaDream," the researchers wrote. "We assess with medium confidence that the mobile malware we associate with DEV-0196 is part of the [company's 'Reign' offering]."

The parallels between the activity of the separately linked entities is eerily similar to that of Israel-based NSO Group, which has been widely condemned, blacklisted, and even sued for its role in selling the iOS-based spyware known as Pegasus to hostile governments to target journalists, activists, politicians, businesspeople, and other private citizens with unethical cyber espionage activity. The spyware notably targets zero-day flaws with exploits, making it difficult to mitigate or detect its nefarious activity.

Suspicious QuaDream Activity

Similarly, QuaDream's REIGN is a suite of exploits, malware, and infrastructure designed to extract data from mobile devices for allegedly legal purposes, however, the company suspiciously doesn't have a website, and a 2022 Reuters report suggested that QuaDream used a zero-click iOS exploit that leveraged the same vulnerability seen in NSO Group's ForcedEntry exploit.

According to the Israeli Corporations Authority, QuaDream, under the Israeli name קוודרים בע”מ, was incorporated in August 2016. A report by news outlet Haaretz, citing a QuaDream brochure, claimed that the government of Saudi Arabia — known for targeting journalists and others who speak out against its policies — was among QuaDream's clients, as was the government of Ghana.

A separate December 2022 report from Meta, which reportedly took down 250 accounts associated with QuaDream, also shed light on the activity of the company. That report claimed that QuaDream was testing its ability to exploit iOS and Android mobile devices with the intent "to exfiltrate various types of data including messages, images, video and audio files, and geolocation," the researchers said.

Meanwhile, Microsoft Threat Intelligence believes that DEV-0196 is selling both exploitation services and its KingsPawn iOS malware to governments to spy on and track members of civil society — including journalists, political opposition figures, and a non-government organization (NGO) worker — in locations across Europe, North America, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia.

Microsoft worked with several partners on the investigation of the links between QuaDream and DEV-0196, including Citizen Lab of the University of Toronto's Munk School, which identified at least five targets of DEV-0196 across the aforementioned geographies. It also identified operator locations for QuaDream systems in Bulgaria, Czechia, Hungary, Ghana, Israel, Mexico, Romania, Singapore, United Arab Emirates, and Uzbekistan. Citizen Lab has released its own separate report about the findings.

The behavior of DEV-0196 is consistent with that of "private sector offensive actors (PSOAs)" or "cyber mercenaries," according to Microsoft Threat Intelligence, which sell hacking tools or services through a variety of business models — including access as a service — to the highest bidder. They don't directly target individuals or run cyber espionage operations themselves.

KingsPawn: A Custom Spyware

Microsoft and its partners analyzed samples of the multi-component KingsPawn, which specifically targets iOS 14. However, it's possible that some of the code also could be used on Android devices, the researchers said. It's also likely that the threat group has already updated the malware to target versions of iOS newer than 14, as the latest version of Apple's operating system software is already up to iOS 16, the researchers said.

KingsPawn is comprised of two agents — a monitor agent in the form of a native Mach-O file written in Objective-C, and the main malware agent, a native Mach-O file written in GoLang, a language favored by threat actors for its portability, among other features, the researchers said.

The monitor agent is responsible for reducing the forensic footprint of the malware to prevent detection and hinder investigations, as well as manage the various processes and threads spawned on behalf of the malware to avoid artifacts created from unexpected process crashes.

Within the main agent of KingsPawn is the real gravy of the spyware where all of the capabilities to track victims and steal data lies, the researchers said.

Capabilities of the main agent include: obtaining device, Wi-Fi, cellular info, searching for and retrieving files, using the camera in the background, locating where the device is, monitoring phone calls, accessing the iOS keychain for passwords, and generating an iCloud one-time password that's time sensitive to retrieve stored data.

"The agent also creates a secure channel for XPC messaging by creating a nested app extension called fud.appex," the researchers wrote. "XPC messaging allows the agent to query various system binaries for sensitive device information, such as location details."

Detection & Protection From Mobile Spyware

Microsoft has developed unique network detections that could be used to fingerprint DEV-019's infrastructure on the Internet based on the group's heavy use of domain registrars and inexpensive cloud hosting providers that accept cryptocurrency as payment, the researchers said.

"They tended to only use a single domain per IP address and domains were very rarely reused across multiple IP addresses," they wrote in the post. "Many of the observed domains were deployed using free Let's Encrypt SSL certificates, while others used self-signed certificates designed to blend in with normal Kubernetes deployments."

The blog post includes network-based indicators that the researchers gleaned from their investigation to help potential victims identify if they've been compromised, including domains strongly associated with some countries that Citizen Lab has identified as locations of victims, countries where QuaDream platforms were operating, or both.

While acknowledging that preventing exploitation of mobile devices by threat actors who are exploiting zero-click vulnerabilities is difficult, there are ways to minimize the risk of mobile devices being compromised, the researchers said.

Following basic cyber hygiene and best practices to keep device software updated through automatic updates, the use of anti-malware software, and maintaining vigilance not to click on malicious links or suspicious messages can also help potential victims avoid compromise.

Researchers also suggested that if someone using an iOS device believes they may be a target of spyware, they can enable Lockdown Mode to enact advanced iOS security, thus reducing the attack surface for threat actors.

About the Author(s)

Elizabeth Montalbano, Contributing Writer

Elizabeth Montalbano is a freelance writer, journalist, and therapeutic writing mentor with more than 25 years of professional experience. Her areas of expertise include technology, business, and culture. Elizabeth previously lived and worked as a full-time journalist in Phoenix, San Francisco, and New York City; she currently resides in a village on the southwest coast of Portugal. In her free time, she enjoys surfing, hiking with her dogs, traveling, playing music, yoga, and cooking.

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