| Researchers March 18, 2020


March 18, 2020

New Threat Discovery Shows Commercial Surveillanceware Operators Latest to Exploit COVID-19

By Kristin Del Rosso

As COVID-19 spreads and individuals seek accurate information about the virus and its impacts, governments and businesses are extensively using email, text messages, and other digital tools to communicate with citizens and customers alike. Unfortunately, cybercriminals and scammers have taken advantage of the increase in communication around this topic, as well as individuals’ desires to stay up to date, find health tips, or track the spread of the disease.

Lookout researchers who were investigating potentially malicious mobile applications pertaining to this topic discovered an Android application that appears to be the most recent piece of tooling in a larger mobile surveillance campaign operating out of Libya and targeting Libyan individuals.

Trojanized Apps, Covid-19 Commercial Surveillanceware

Icons of newly discovered trojanized applications taking advantage of the current COVID-19 crisis, which are part of a larger Android surveillance campaign.

The application is titled “corona live 1.1.” Upon first launch, the app informs the user it does not require special access privileges, but subsequently proceeds to request access to photos, media, files, device location, as well as permission to take pictures and record video. 

In reality, the corona live 1.1 app is a SpyMax sample, a trojanized version of the legitimate “corona live” application (SHA1: 134b53eb8b772f752ae4019b5f9b660c780e7773), which provides an interface to the data found on the Johns Hopkins coronavirus tracker including infection rates and number of deaths over time and per country.

Screenshot of the application when opened, and after a user allows the requested permissions to use the application.

SpyMax is a commercial surveillanceware family that appears to have been developed by the same creators as SpyNote, another low-cost commercial Android surveillanceware. SpyMax has all the capabilities of a standard spying tool, and forums referencing the malware praise its “simple graphical interface” and ease of use.

Screenshot of a SpyMax admin console, which allows the user to manage a device’s calls, contacts, location, microphone, and more.

SpyMax allows the actor to access a variety of sensitive data on the phone, and provides a shell terminal and the ability to remotely activate the microphone and cameras.

SpyNote Permissions


RECEIVE_BOOT_COMPLETED
CALL_PHONE
READ_CONTACTS
WRITE_CONTACTS
INTERNET
READ_SMS
ACCESS_NETWORK_STATE
READ_PHONE_STATE
WAKE_LOCK
WRITE_SETTINGS
WRITE_EXTERNAL_STORAGE
SET_WALLPAPER
CAMERA
ACCESS_COARSE_LOCATION
ACCESS_FINE_LOCATION

ACCESS_WIFI_STATE
CHANGE_WIFI_STATE
GET_ACCOUNTS
MODIFY_AUDIO_SETTINGS
RECORD_AUDIO
READ_EXTERNAL_STORAGE
SYSTEM_ALERT_WINDOW
WRITE_SECURE_SETTINGS
KILL_BACKGROUND_PROCESSES
SET_ALARM
READ_CALL_LOG
WRITE_CALL_LOG
READ_SETTINGS
FOREGROUND_SERVICE

While this “corona live 1.1” application itself appears to be waiting for more functionality, it stores command and control (C2) information in resources/values/strings as is common in SpyMax and SpyNote samples, where it contains the hard-coded address of the attacker’s server.

Pivoting off of the domain of the C2 server enabled Lookout researchers to find 30 unique APKs that share infrastructure in what appears to be a larger surveillance campaign that has been ongoing since at least April, 2019. The applications used by this actor are functional and belong to a variety of commercial surveillanceware families that the Lookout research team has been tracking for years, including SpyMax, SpyNote, SonicSpy, SandroRat, and Mobihok.

The titles of these apps that share the malicious infrastructure are fairly generic. The two newest are COVID-19-related, with another sample called “Crona.” What piqued the researcher’s interest were three applications titled “Libya Mobile Lookup.” These trojanized apps belong to the SpyNote family and are the earliest samples ingested that communicate with the C2 infrastructure. This indicates they were likely the first apps rolled out in this surveillance campaign, and offer insight into who the targeted demographic might be.

Application icons from this surveillance campaign pretending to be applications related to Coronavirus, as well as media players, IP information, and interestingly, the Libya Mobile Lookup application, a service that lets a user search for the customer name of a Libyan mobile number.

The C2 domain is hosted through the dynamic DNS provider No-IP and previously resolved to a number of different IP addresses in the same range of addresses. The address space appears to be operated by Libyan Telecom and Technology, a consumer internet service provider, and the naming of the reverse DNS records associated with the IP addresses indicates that they are likely part of a pool used for DSL connections. 

The person or group running the campaign is likely in Libya and using their own infrastructure to run the C2, or is leveraging infrastructure they have compromised there. As the applications are also specifically aimed at Libyan users, this appears to be a regionally targeted surveillance effort.

While Lookout researchers have not seen anything at the moment to indicate this is a state-sponsored campaign, the use of these commercial surveillanceware families has been observed in the past as part of the tooling used by nation states in the Middle East. While nation states can and do develop their own custom tooling, they have also been known to use out-of-the-box open-source and commercial tools, as well as sometimes use commercial or open source malware as a starting point to develop their own malware.

What is interesting to note is the malware used in this campaign can be easily purchased and customized. Lookout researchers have found several connections between these families in this campaign, as well as believe it is reasonable to assume the creator of MobiHok is familiar with and has used or developed SpyNote in the past. In terms of ease of acquisition, SpyNote and Mobihok have fairly cheap licensing costs, and even offer support for users to set up their applications. With sites that offer an easy checkout process and customer support, these commercial surveillanceware vendors make it possible for anyone to acquire, customize and manage their own spy tools.

SpyNote features and purchasing price from the official website.

MobiHok pricing and capabilities from its website, where it contains the same functionalities as SpyNote and SpyMax, and can be found for as little as $75 for a single license.

This surveillance campaign highlights how in times of crisis, our innate need to seek out information can be used against us for malicious ends. Furthermore, the commercialization of “off-the-shelf” spyware kits makes it fairly easy for these malicious actors to spin up these bespoke campaigns almost as quickly as a crisis like COVID-19 takes hold. These applications were never available in the GooglePlay store. It is important to avoid downloading apps from third-party app stores and clicking suspicious links for “informative” sites or apps spread via SMS.

IOCs

Android Applications

Title Package Name SHA1
corona live 1.1
Android sIwI Tester
Android sIwI Tester
AppName
null
null
null
null
null
null
null
null
media player
media player
media player
ipinfo
media player
media player
AppName
spymax
spymax
spymax
spymax
Crona
Android sIwI Tester
null
media player
Libya Mobile Lookup
Libya Mobile Lookup
Libya Mobile Lookup
package.name.suffix
GOOD.BYE.GOOGLE
GOOD.BYE.GOOGLE
yps.eton.application
yps.eton.application
yps.eton.application
yps.eton.application
yps.eton.application
yps.eton.application
yps.eton.application
yps.eton.application
yps.eton.application
cmf0.c3b5bm90zq.patch
cmf0.c3b5bm90zq.patch
cmf0.c3b5bm90zq.patch
cmf0.c3b5bm90zq.patch
cmf0.c3b5bm90zq.patch
cmf0.c3b5bm90zq.patch
com.mobihk.v
n.a.stub.suffix
n.a.stub.suffix
n.a.stub.suffix
n.a.stub.suffix
GOOD.BYE.GOOGLE
GOOD.BYE.GOOGLE
yps.eton.application
cmf0.c3b5bm90zq.patch
yps.eton.application
yps.eton.application
yps.eton.application
31c1ae3e642515ca64656620f075e3ffd3258e9f
d738fd0844dcfa47ebdf53d835ab130f2132a6c2
56d2b0000d46841b90c55e0ee752aa26ba387482
075c474ce424a91a58344e0500620a311af86169
a84626484f812c1baf4520d19be6dc78718b9cf1
e95324efa53e1e7e59415057ba5e1e8a99bdb39f
9ee8ae9abdd6a79c34daf89f7e270fe9801303b2
87ed3d453b34d6f56de23724a95d90ea8adf1f8a
223ba2801e0c189efe28d8f8bca2d61cc63b6dd1
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15811e230a79b02422bb6b6a6eb9b86e72189749
22e56846a1a581a3ad645acd10cdf61670907e48
00f87fffcbd2bbe09f939eb878d96c8db4751f3f
d87b7c742a638a19fa79ebbb48cc290b0f585d0d
bc466506e3f184c45054c93445275d9b8ef044f8
54afa3a4e2ca8ac91c4f54641e267c78d58948b9
afabf51065d63ea7edc95af3c8548ad774321202
f224fc2f1a2ce1e3e1d1ff9d194405e99157725e
951b11da54a9c8b62c919fec485952c3663f7273
29eefeff0f7fcb3cfeb71aa3e5d9d8b33e549f2d
3a883f300b136c7fac4ec52935851d73ce3d80fd
61420ff79b75059aae40b2a6446c83ff0f9c912d
6264a91a9be1aa293b545a1a08d9254a6662fb8f
a05588ee2d46cd78707cd4ac8958f47e096de3e8
017acf67d4c7fa60d00e325170c26d75674c8fdd
d4fae149443cb202cdb9a01f184e1c642ded0958

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Author

Kristin Del Rosso,
Security Research Engineer