New malware shows Android has target on its back

Mobile devices will likely be the mark in future cyberespionage attacks, experts say

Recently discovered Android malware used in targeted attacks against Tibetan and Uyghur activists in Europe is a warning to U.S. companies that mobile devices will likely be the mark in future cyberespionage attacks, experts say.

Kaspersky Lab discovered the malware while investigating a spear-phishing campaign that stemmed from the March 24 hack of the e-mail account of a high-profile Tibetan activist.

Within the attack emails sent to activists, the security company found an attachment carrying a malicious program for Android. The activists are protesting China's treatment of Tibetans and the Uyghurs, a Turkic ethnic group in China.

In the past, Kaspersky has documented attacks targeting activists on Windows and Mac OS X platforms. These attacks typically use ZIP files, as well as DOC, XLS and PDF documents rigged with exploits.

"Since this was the first publicly documented Android-based targeted attack, we will inevitably see more of them in various parts around the world," said Kurt Baumgartner, a senior security researcher for Kaspersky.

Characteristics of the campaign were similar to those seen in cyberespionage attacks targeting U.S. organizations, Baumgartner said, declining to provide details. "Given this, there is a high probability that these Android-based attacks will be modified and re-used for future attacks."

The email attachment targeting Android devices carried an Android Package (APK) file used to distribute and install software on Google's mobile operating system. The malware-carrying message tried to trick recipients into opening that attachment by pretending that it contained information on a recent human rights conference in Geneva, Switzerland, Kaspersky said.

If opened, the attachment showed a bogus message from Dolkun Isa, chairman of the executive committee of the World Uyghur Congress. In the background, the malware reported the infection to a command-and-control server and then started harvesting data from the device, including contacts, call logs, text messages, geo-location and phone-related data, such as number, OS version and model.

Kaspersky could not identify the attackers, but given the targets, it mostly likely originated in China, experts said. Chinese hackers are most active in cyberespionage and are innovators in the field.

[Slide show: 9 hacking, phishing and social engineering lies]

"China is going to be the breeding ground for new malware," said Sean Sullivan, a security adviser for F-Secure.

Chinese hackers have been particularly focused on mobile devices, Sullivan said. "They are the innovators of new types of threats for mobile platforms."

Rick Holland, an analyst with Forrester, said the latest attack is probably not the first targeting Android. "It's just the first evidence we have found thus far," he said.

While Android has yet to be identified as a target in cyberattacks on U.S. organizations, the Kaspersky discovery shows it can be done and companies should consider the possibility when formulating their bring-your-own-device policies for employees, Sullivan said.

"It's going to be difficult [for companies] to deny or push back against the bring-your-own-device movement, but it can't be just an open slate," he said. Ã'Â

Meanwhile, last week's cyberattacks that took several South Korean banks and broadcasters temporarily offline likely started with a spear-phishing campaign, F-Secure said.

In comparing the hard-drive wiping malware used in the Korean attacks to exploits in its database, the vendor found it was similar to other wipers sent to victims in RAR files that arrived as email attachments. RAR is a proprietary archive file format that support data compression.

"The only thing we've ever seen archive files deployed as is as an attachment in a spear-phishing campaign," Sullivan said.

Read more about wireless/mobile security in CSOonline's Wireless/Mobile Security section.

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Tags smartphonesmobile securityAndroidsoftwaredata protectionapplicationsspear phishingconsumer electronicskaspersky labData Protection | Wireless

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Antone Gonsalves

CSO (US)
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