The National Security Agency and its closest allies planned to hijack data links to Google and Samsung app stores to infect smartphones with spyware, a top-secret document reveals.
The surveillance project was launched by a joint electronic eavesdropping unit called the Network Tradecraft Advancement Team, which includes spies from each of the countries in the “Five Eyes” alliance — the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Australia.
The top-secret document, obtained from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, was published Wednesday by CBC News in collaboration with The Intercept. The document outlines a series of tactics that the NSA and its counterparts in the Five Eyes were working on during workshops held in Australia and Canada between November 2011 and February 2012.
The main purpose of the workshops was to find new ways to exploit smartphone technology for surveillance. The agencies used the Internet spying system XKEYSCORE to identify smartphone traffic flowing across Internet cables and then to track down smartphone connections to app marketplace servers operated by Samsung and Google. (Google declined to comment for this story. Samsung said it would not be commenting “at this time.”)
As part of a pilot project codenamed IRRITANT HORN, the agencies were developing a method to hack and hijack phone users’ connections to app stores so that they would be able to send malicious “implants” to targeted devices. The implants could then be used to collect data from the phones without their users noticing.
Previous disclosures from the Snowden files have shown agencies in the Five Eyes alliance designed spyware for iPhones and Android smartphones, enabling them to infect targeted phones and grab emails, texts, web history, call records, videos, photos and other files stored on them. But methods used by the agencies to get the spyware onto phones in the first place have remained unclear.
The newly published document shows how the agencies wanted to “exploit” app store servers — using them to launch so-called “man-in-the-middle” attacks to infect phones with the implants. A man-in-the-middle attack is a technique in which hackers place themselves between computers as they are communicating with each other; it is a tactic sometimes used by criminal hackers to defraud people. In this instance, the method would have allowed the surveillance agencies to modify the content of data packets passing between targeted smartphones and the app servers while an app was being downloaded or updated, inserting spyware that would be covertly sent to the phones.
Security researchers have uncovered highly sophisticated malware that is linked to a secret National Security Agency hacking operation exposed by The Intercept last year.
Russian security firm Kaspersky published a report Monday documenting the malware, which it said had been used to infect thousands of computer systems and steal data in 30 countries around the world. Among the targets were a series of unnamed governments, telecom, energy, and aerospace companies, as well as Islamic scholars, and media organizations.
Kaspersky did not name the NSA as the author of the malware. However, Reuters reported later on Monday that the agency had created the technology, citing anonymous former U.S. intelligence officials.
Kaspersky’s researchers noted that the newly found malware is similar to Stuxnet, a covert tool reportedly created by the U.S. government to sabotage Iranian nuclear systems. The researchers also identified a series of codenames that they found contained within the samples of malware, including STRAIGHTACID, STRAITSHOOTER, and GROK.
Notably, GROK, which Kaspersky said is a piece of malware used to secretly log keystrokes, is tied to secret NSA hacking tactics described in documents from whistleblower Edward Snowden. Last year, The Intercept revealed that the NSA was using a tool called GROK to log keystrokes as part of a toolkit it uses to hack computers and collect data.
The other codenames identified by Kaspersky on Tuesday—such as STRAIGHTACID, STRAITSHOOTER—are strikingly similar to known NSA hacking operations. Leaked NSA documents have revealed that the agency uses hacking tools known as STRAIGHTBIZARRE and FOXACID to break into computers and grab data.
According to Kaspersky, the malware found in the latest discovery is the most advanced ever found and represents an “astonishing technical accomplishment.” It hides deep within an infected computer and can stay on the machine even after attempts to wipe or reformat the hard drive. The security firm has dubbed different variants of the malware EquationLaser, EquationDrug and GrayFish, and they are calling its creators the “Equation Group,” because of the way the spy technology attempts to hide itself in an infected computer using complex encryption.