Security Experts:

North Korean Hackers Target Android Users in South

At least two cybersecurity firms have noticed that the notorious Lazarus threat group, which many experts have linked to North Korea, has been using a new piece of Android malware to target smartphone users in South Korea.

Both McAfee and Palo Alto Networks published blog posts on Monday describing the latest campaign attributed to the threat actor also known as Hidden Cobra. The group is believed to be responsible for several high-profile attacks, including ones targeting Sony and financial institutions, and possibly even the recent WannaCry ransomware attack. Some of the operations tied to this group are Operation Blockbuster, Dark Seoul and Operation Troy.

The malware sample analyzed by McAfee, delivered as an APK file, has been designed to mimic a Korean bible app made available on Google Play by a developer named GODpeople. However, the malicious application did not make it onto the official app store and it’s unclear what method of distribution has been used.

“GodPeople is sympathetic to individuals from North Korea, helping to produce a movie about underground church groups in the North. Previous dealings with the Korean Information Security Agency on discoveries in the Korean peninsula have shown that religious groups are often the target of such activities in Korea,” explained McAfee’s Christiaan Beek and Raj Samani.

McAfee said the malware, which has been around since at least March, delivers a backdoor as an executable and linkable format (ELF) file. The backdoor allows hackers to collect information about the infected device, download and upload files, and execute commands. The list of command and control (C&C) servers used by the malware includes IP addresses previously linked to the Lazarus group.

Palo Alto Networks has not shared any information about the applications used to deliver the malware, but the company pointed out that the operation appears to be aimed at Samsung device users in South Korea.

The firm’s analysis started with a PE file uploaded to VirusTotal. This file is designed to deliver ELF ARM files and APK files from an HTTP server. The APK that represents the final payload provides backdoor capabilities and allows its operator to spy on the targeted user by recording audio via the microphone, capturing images via the camera, uploading and downloading files, harvesting GPS information, reading contacts, collecting SMS and MMS messages, recording browsing history, and capturing Wi-Fi information.

Palo Alto Networks has also found links between the malware and the Lazarus group, particularly to malware and infrastructure used in attacks on the SWIFT banking system and activities described in reports on Operation Blockbuster.

This is not the first time North Korea has reportedly targeted mobile users in the South. Back in 2014, South Korea’s National Intelligence Service said more than 20,000 smartphones had been infected that year with a piece of malware traced back to North Korea.

The reports from McAfee and Palo Alto Networks come less than a week after the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) published a report on a Hidden Cobra malware tracked as FALLCHILL.

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Eduard Kovacs is an international correspondent for SecurityWeek. He worked as a high school IT teacher for two years before starting a career in journalism as Softpedia’s security news reporter. Eduard holds a bachelor’s degree in industrial informatics and a master’s degree in computer techniques applied in electrical engineering.