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New sophisticated Android malware may have state backing Featured

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Security researchers have found what appears to be a highly sophisticated piece of malware that infects Android systems. It has been named Pegasus for Android, after the original Pegasus which targeted iOS.

The security firm Lookout Security was examining software developed by the intercept vendor NSO Group, which is based in Israel, while looking at the features of mobile malware created by state actors.

In August last year, Lookout had published a detailed study of Pegasus for iOS after Apple released a patch to prevent its operation.

The Lookout team and researchers from Google found Pegasus for the Android platform in the following months and discovered that it has several features of its iOS cousin.

These are:

Exfiltrating targeted data from common apps including:

  • WhatsApp
  • Skype
  • Facebook
  • Viber
  • Kakao
  • Twitter
  • Gmail
  • Android's Native Browser and Chrome
  • Android's Native Email

Remote control of the device using SMS

Surveillance of:

  • Audio via the microphone
  • Imagery via the camera (front and rear)

Keylogging

Screenshot capture

Disabling of system updates

A Lookout analysis said these features were quite common to threats produced by nation state-like groups.

"These groups produce advanced persistent threats (APT) for mobile with the specific goal of tracking a target not only in the physical world, but also the virtual world," the Lookout team wrote.

"As nation states continue to expand their mobile capabilities, it is important to provide detailed analysis of the capabilities that threat actors are deploying on the mobile platform in order to expand the industry’s knowledge and ability to protect against this type of threat globally."

Pegasus for Android can self-destruct when it is at risk of being compromised or discovered. It infects devices by using a well-known rooting technique called Framaroot which can help override Android's security safeguards.

If the rooting process does not work, then Pegasus for Android looks for the permissions needed to exfiltrate data. Given the method of infection, as opposed to Pegasus for iOS which used vulnerabilities in the operating system to gain a foothold, Pegasus for Android can infect a device much more easily. It also has a fallback if the primary method fails.

Bogdan Botezatu, senior e-threat analyst at Bitdefender's labs in Romania, told iTWire that Pegasus was the most advanced Android remote access trojan malware to have ever been detected in real-world usage.

"Even though Pegasus was detected on a limited number of devices worldwide, it is a tough reminder about how ill-intended parties can leverage the flexibility of the Android operating system and build rogue applications for surveillance and monitoring," he said.

"Smartphones 'hear' and 'see' almost everything we do 24/7, while other Android implementations, such as Smart TVs see the most intimate moments of our private life."

He said that considering Android was estimated to have overtaken Microsoft Windows for the first time as the world’s most popular operating system in terms of total Internet usage it was likely that malware with similar RAT capabilities would proliferate.

"To protect your Android devices install apps from legitimate sources, make sure you have the latest OS updates and security patches, enable a lock screen, ensure you run an anti-malware app, and check on a regular basis what are the apps that have admin rights on your device," Botezatu said.

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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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