An analysis of a piece of Android spyware targeting a prominent Tibetan political figure suggests it may have been built to figure out the victim's exact location.
The research, performed by the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs, is part of an ongoing project that is looking at how the Tibetan community continues to be targeted by sophisticated cyberspying campaigns.
Citizen Lab obtained a sample of an application called KaKaoTalk from a Tibetan source in January, according to its blog. KaKaoTalk, made by a South Korean company, is a messaging application that also lets users exchange photos, videos and contact information.
The application was received on Jan. 16 through email by a "high profile political figure in the Tibetan community," Citizen Lab wrote. But the email was forged to look like it had come from an information security expert who had previous contact with the Tibetan figure in December.
At that time, the security expert had sent the Tibetan activist a legitimate version of KaKaoTalk's Android Application Package File (APK) as an alternative to using WeChat, another chat client, due to security concerns that WeChat could be used to monitor communications.
But the version of KaKaoTalk for Android had been modified to record a victim's contacts, SMSes and mobile phone network configuration and transmit it to a remote server, which had been created to mimic Baidu, the Chinese portal and search engine.
The malware is capable of recording information such as the base station ID, tower ID, mobile network code and area code of the phone, Citizen Lab said. That information is typically not of much use to a scammer who is trying to pull off frauds or identity theft.
But it is useful to an attacker that has access to a mobile communication provider's technical infrastructure.
"It almost certainly represents the information that a cellular service provider requires to initiate eavesdropping, often referred to as 'trap and trace'," Citizen Lab wrote. "Actors at this level would also have access to the data required to perform radio frequency triangulation based on the signal data from multiple towers, placing the user within a small geographical area."
The Citizen Lab noted that their theory is speculative and that "it is possible that this data is being gathered opportunistically by an actor without access to such cellular network information."
The tampered version of KaKaoTalk has many suspicious traits: it uses a forged certificate and asks for extra permissions to run on an Android device. Android devices typically forbid installing applications from outside Google's Play store, but that security precaution can be disabled.
If users are tricked into granting extra permissions, the application will run. Citizen Lab notes that Tibetans may not have access to Google's Play store and must install applications hosted elsewhere, which puts them at a higher risk.
Citizen Lab tested the tampered version of KaKaoTalk against three mobile antivirus scanners made by Lookout Mobile Security, Avast and Kaspersky Lab on Feb. 6 and March 27. None of the products detected the malware.
Citizen Lab wrote that the finding shows those who are targeting the Tibetan community quickly change their tactics.
As soon as discussions began to move away from WeChat, the attackers "leveraged this change, duplicating a legitimate message and producing a malicious version of an application being circulated as a possible alternative," Citizen Lab wrote.
Send news tips and comments to email@example.com. Follow me on Twitter: @jeremy_kirk