China replies to Hong Kong protests with spyware, MITM and censorship

Pierluigi Paganini October 02, 2014

Security experts speculate that the Chinese government is using mobile spyware, MITM attacks and Internet monitoring to control Hong Kong protesters.

In the last days I published the news regarding a spyware used to spy on activists in Hong Kong, a Fake Occupy Central app is targeting the smartphones of the activists belonging to the Occupy Central pro-democracy movement. The malicious app  has circulated online claiming to be an instrument to coordinate the members of the Occupy Central pro-democracy movement. The spyware is disguised as an Android App, dubbed Code4HK, designed by a group of coders trying to improve government transparency in Hong Kong.

“No one from the Code4hk community has done any application on OC at the moment nor sent the message out.” Code4HK in an official statement.

It’s a shared opinion that  the Chinese government might be using smartphone apps to spy on pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, the suspect is confirmed by the analysis made by the firm Lacoon Mobile Security. The company speculated that the malicious app might be the first spyware for iOS created by a Chinese government entity.

“The fact that this attack is being used against protesters and is being executed by Chinese-speaking attackers suggests it’s first iOS trojan linked to Chinese government cyber activity.” state the researchers.

Lacoon Mobile Security detected two similar “malicious, fake” apps that seem to be related, respectively target Apple smartphone and Android devices, this circumstance is another element that suggests investigators the involvement of a government.

The identities of the targeted individuals and information gathered on the C&C servers used in the malicious campaign lead experts to believe that the malware was spread by state-sponsored hackers.

 “The identity of the victims, as well as data from the CnC (Command and Control) servers lead us to believe that the Chinese Government are behind the attack. This is also a very advanced mRAT that is undoubtedly being backed by a nation state.” states the blog post from Lacoon.

China has great cyber capabilities, for this reason is not surprising that the government of Beijing would have used a similar strategy to track the protesters in Hong Kong, of course the Chinese authorities have denied any involvement is the case.

The software used to infect mobile devices is known as Xsser mRAT, or multidimensional requirements analysis tool, as explained by the company.

“The Xsser mRAT represents a fundamental shift by nation-state cybercriminals from compromising traditional PC systems to targeting mobile devices,”

hong kong spyware

As explained by the team at Lacoon the iOS device needs to be jailbroken in order to be infected, but the researchers haven’t uncovered information regarding the attack chain.

The diffusion of spyware isn’t the unique measure adopted by the Chinese Government against protesters in Hong Kong, China also Restricted in China the access to the Yahoo! Inc.’s (YHOO) main website to block the flow of information amid student-led protests in Hong Kong.

The, a group that monitors Internet censorship in China, confirmed that site was inaccessible in some parts of the country. The group also speculated on a possible “man-in-the-middle attack,”against users accessing Yahoo’s servers. Something similar was observed a few weeks ago on Gmail services accessed from mainland China.

“Yahoo’s search page had remained free of restrictions in China even after Google Inc.’s (GOOG)website was blocked and access to its Gmail service was restricted ahead of the 25th anniversary of the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. China has sought to control information emanating from Hong Kong, where student demonstrators have protested since Sept. 26 to demand free elections of their city leader.”  reported Bloomberg on the case.

Yahoo’s mail and news services remained available in China yesterday, while the access to Yahoo’s Hong Kong, Taiwan and Canada portals from within China was also disrupted.

Stay tuned for further news.

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Pierluigi Paganini

(Security Affairs – Yahoo, Hong Kong)

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