Recently discovered cyber attacks targeting iPhone users have been using an open source mobile device management (MDM) system to control enrolled devices, Talos reports.
Enrollment of targeted devices could be performed via physical access or social engineering, but Talos could not determine which method the attackers used. As part of a highly targeted campaign, the attackers went to great lengths in their attempt to replace specific apps and intercept user data.
With the use of the MDM solution, the actor deployed five applications to the 13 targeted devices in India. As a result, they were able to steal SMS messages, view the device location, and exfiltrate data. Apple has been informed on the attack and has already acted against the certificates the attackers used.
Talos security researchers discovered that the attackers added features to legitimate apps (including WhatsApp and Telegram) using the BOptions sideloading technique. Then, the MDM was used to deploy the apps onto targeted devices.
The injected malicious code could gather and steal information such as phone number, serial number, location, contacts, user’s photos, SMS and Telegram and WhatsApp chat messages.
The malware appears to have been in use since August 2015, logs on the MDM server and the command and control (C&C) server reveal. Based on other information found on these servers, Talos believes that the malware author works out of India.
The two MDM servers used by the attackers are based on the small, open-source project mdm-server. Through MDM, admins can control multiple devices from a single location, can install and remove apps and certificates, lock the device, change password requirements, and more.
The enrollment process, however, requires user interaction at each step, which suggests that social engineering was used as part of the attack. Most likely, users were advised to install the attacker’s certificate to allow enrollment, and the use of a domain such as “ios-certificate-update[.]com” helped them trick users.
The attacker used a certificate issued in September 2017 for an email address located in Russia, which is believed to be a false flag, as the attacker isn’t located in Russia. The certificates are either self-signed or signed by the Comodo certificate authority.
According to Talos, the affected devices, all located in India, include the following models: iPhone 5.4, iPhone 7.2, iPhone 8.1, iPhone 8.2, iPhone 9.3, and iPhone 9.4. The operating system versions include 10.2.1, 10.3.1, 10.3.2, 10.3.3, 11.0, 11.0.3, 11.2.1, 11.2.5, and 11.2.6.
While there’s no information available on how the 13 devices were enrolled in the MDM, the attacker likely tested the solution on their own iPhone, the researchers say.
The attack, however, appears focused on deploying malicious apps onto the compromised devices to steal information. The attacker injected code into applications such as AppsSLoader, Telegram, WhatsApp, PrayTime, and MyApp and then loaded them onto the targeted iPhones.
The malicious Telegram and WhatsApp versions were observed sending the collected information to a server that has been active since August 2015.
“At the time, it is unclear who the targets of the campaign were, who was the perpetrator, or what the exact purpose was. It’s very likely the vector for this campaign was simply social engineering – in other words asking the user to click “ok”. This type of vector is very difficult to defend against since users can often be tricked into acting against their best interests,” Talos concludes.
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