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Syrian Hackers Target Mobile Users With COVID-19 Lures

Syrian-linked hackers recently switched to COVID-19-themed lures as part of a long-running surveillance campaign, Lookout security researchers reveal.

Syrian-linked hackers recently switched to COVID-19-themed lures as part of a long-running surveillance campaign, Lookout security researchers reveal.

Supposedly active since January 2018, the campaign targets Arabic-speaking users with tens of Android applications, none of which is available in the official Google Play Store. Likely targeting users in Syria and surrounding regions, the malicious apps have names such as “Covid19”, “Telegram Covid_19”, “Android Telegram”, and “Threema Arabic,” among others.

A total of 71 malicious Android applications were identified, all connecting to the same command-and-control (C&C) server. The server’s IP address is linked to the Syrian Telecommunications Establishment (STE), which is known for hosting infrastructure for the government-backed Syrian Electronic Army (SEA).

Lookout’s security researchers discovered that many of the malicious applications are SpyNote samples. The code of 22 apps reference the name “Allosh,” which was previously linked to a known Syrian Electronic Army persona. The name was also found in paths associated with SilverHawk infrastructure.

Earlier this month, SEA claimed responsibility for DDoS attacks against Belgian media and the defacing of PayPal and eBay websites as recently as April 7, 2020, Lookout security research engineer Kristin Del Rosso explains.

Of the 71 malicious apps used in this campaign, 64 are versions of SpyNote, a known commercial surveillanceware family. Others belong to the SandroRat, AndoServer, and SLRat families.

AndoServer samples used in the campaign can receive commands to take screenshots, report location, get a list of installed applications, launch apps, check cameras and access them, create toast messages, record audio, create files on external storage, exfiltrate call logs/SMS messages/contacts, list files in a specified directory, call/text a phone number, and read battery level and if the device is plugged in.

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SLRat, which was initially advertised on underground forums in May 2016 as an Android remote admin tool, appears to be a customizable Android malware that may be used by a small number of adversaries only.

According to Lookout, the use of both AndoServer and SLRat families, which it has been tracking since 2016, has spiked at the end of 2019. The security company also underlines that the existence of this Syrian-linked surveillance campaign should come as no surprise.

“SilverHawk actors initially entered the mobile malware space using the commercial Android surveillance-ware AndroRat, before customizing it and then developing their own mobile tooling. It is in line with known TTPs that a new commercial or public spy tool might have been adopted and used by this actor as part of new surveillance efforts, and there are likely more to be discovered,” Lookout concludes.

Last month, Lookout reported on a surveillance campaign targeting Android users in Libya with COVID-19-themed lures. As part of the attack, the adversary employed the SpyMax commercial surveillanceware family, which is believed to have been developed by SpyNote creators.

Related: Android Surveillance Campaign Leverages COVID-19 Crisis

Related: COVID-19 Lures Only a Fraction of Daily Phishing Emails

Related: More Charges Against ‘Syrian Electronic Army’ Hackers

Written By

Ionut Arghire is an international correspondent for SecurityWeek.

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