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Researchers Find and Decode the Spy Tools Governments Use to Hijack Phones


News » Technology/Innovation
Nigeria

25th June 2014

Newly uncovered components of a digital surveillance tool used by more than 60 governments worldwide provide a rare glimpse at the extensive ways law enforcement and intelligence agencies use the tool to surreptitiously record and steal data from mobile phones.

The modules, made by the Italian company Hacking Team, were uncovered by researchers working independently of each other at Kaspersky Lab in Russia and the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs in Canada, who say the findings provide great insight into the trade craft behind Hacking Team’s tools.

The new components target Android, iOS, Windows Mobile, and BlackBerry users and are part of Hacking Team’s larger suite of tools used for targeting desktop computers and laptops. But the iOS and Android modules provide cops and spooks with a robust menu of features to give them complete dominion over targeted phones.

They allow, for example, for covert collection of emails, text messages, call history and address books, and they can be used to log keystrokes and obtain search history data. They can take screenshots, record audio from the phones to monitor calls or ambient conversations, hijack the phone’s camera to snap pictures or piggyback on the phone’s GPS system to monitor the user’s location. The Android version can qlso enable the phone’s Wi-Fi function to siphon data from the phone wirelessly instead of using the cell network to transmit it. The latter would incur data charges and raise the phone owner’s suspicion.

“Secretly activating the microphone and taking regular camera shots provides constant surveillance of the target—which is much more powerful than traditional cloak and dagger operations,” notes Kaspersky researcher Sergey Golovanov in a blog post about the findings.

It’s long been known that law enforcement and intelligence agencies worldwide use Hacking Team’s tools to spy on computer and mobile phone users—including, in some countries, to spy on political dissidents, journalists and human rights advocates. This is the first time, however, that the modules used to spy on mobile phone users have been uncovered in the wild and reverse-engineered.

Kaspersky and Citizen Lab discovered them after developing new methods to search for code fragments and digital certificates used by Hacking Team’s tools.

The modules work in conjunction with Hacking Team’s core surveillance tool, known as the Remote Control System, which the company markets under the names Da Vinci and Galileo.

In a sleek marketing video for Galileo, Hacking Team touts the tool as the perfect solution for obtaining hard-to-reach data—such as data taken by a suspect across borders or data and communications that never leave the target’s computer and therefore can’t be siphoned in transit.

“You want to look through your targets’s eyes,” says the video. “While your target is browsing the web, exchanging documents, receiving SMS….”

Hacking Team’s tools are controlled remotely through command-and-control servers set up by Hacking Team’s law enforcement and intelligence agency customers to monitor multiple targets.

Kaspersky has tracked more than 350 command-and-control servers created for this purpose in more than 40 countries. While Kaspersky found only one or two servers in most of these countries, the researchers found 64 in the United States—by far the most. Kazakhstan followed with 49, Ecuador with 35 and the United Kingdom with 32. It’s not known for certain whether law enforcement agencies in the U.S. use Hacking Team’s tool or if these servers are used by other governments. But as Kaspersky notes, it makes little sense for governments to maintain their command servers in foreign countries where they run the risk of losing control over the servers.

Article Credit: Wired

Updated 5 Years ago
 

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Tags:     Hijack     Phones

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