Apple patches iOS against potent zero-day spyware attack

Pegasus exploit discovered when used against a human rights activist

Apple is issuing patches for three iOS zero-day vulnerabilities known as Trident that have been exploited for years by an Israel-based spyware vendor against a human rights activist, an investigative journalist and others.

The attack, called Pegasus, is flexible, letting attackers steal a broad range of data from iPhones and iPads, according to the firms that discovered it.

“In this case, the software is highly configurable: depending on the country of use and feature sets purchased by the user, the spyware capabilities include accessing messages, calls, emails, logs, and more from apps including Gmail, Facebook, Skype, WhatsApp, Viber, FaceTime, Calendar, Line, Mail.Ru, WeChat, SS, Tango, and others,” according to a blog post by Lookout Security, which, along with Citizen Lab, unearthed the vulnerabilities and Pegasus.

The researchers say a kernel mapping table in the malware refers to iOS 7, which was released in September 2013, leading them to think the exploit has been active for years. “We are not aware of any previous instance of an iPhone remote jailbreak used in the wild as part of a targeted attack campaign, making this a rare find,” according to Citizen Lab.

Lookout recommends that users who want to defend against the attacks should update to iOS 9.3.5. Further, it recommends that its customers update to Lookout 4.4.8 to find out if their phones were actually compromised.

The vulnerabilities exploited are:

  • CVE-2016-4655: Memory Corruption in Webkit - A vulnerability in Safari WebKit allows the attacker to compromise the device when the user clicks on a link.
  • CVE-2016-4656: Kernel Information Leak- A kernel base mapping vulnerability that leaks information to the attacker that allows him to calculate the kernel’s location in memory.
  • CVE-2016-4657: Kernel Memory corruption leads to Jailbreak - 32 and 64 bit iOS kernel-level vulnerabilities that allow the attacker to silently jailbreak the device and install surveillance software.

“The attack sequence, boiled down, is a classic phishing scheme: send text message, open web browser, load page, exploit vulnerabilities, install persistent software to gather information,” Lookout says in its blog.

According to a companion report, Citizen Lab says Pegasus was used against a human rights activist in the United Arab Emirates named Ahmed Mansoor. Two weeks ago he received a suspicious SMS message on his iPhone 6 (iOS 9.3.3) that urged him to click a link in order to find out about torture in UAE jails.

Instead he sent the message to Citizen Lab, which identified the message as having ties to NSO, a company based in Israel that specializes in spyware. Francisco Partners, a U.S. private equity firm, bought the company in 2014.

The link included the domain name webadv.co, which Citizen Lab believes is part of NSO Group’s exploit infrastructure.

Citizen Lab researchers clicked on the link from their own iPhone, and observed a software download from the site. They shared the information with Lookout. “Both research teams determined that Mansoor was targeted with a zero-day iPhone remote jailbreak,” Citizen Lab writes. “The attack on Mansoor appears to have used Pegasus, a remote monitoring solution sold by NSO Group Technologies Ltd.”

“Once infected, Mansoor’s phone would have become a digital spy in his pocket, capable of employing his iPhone’s camera and microphone to snoop on activity in the vicinity of the device, recording his WhatsApp and Viber calls, logging messages sent in mobile chat apps, and tracking his movements,” Citizen Lab says in its report.

Citizen Lab and Lookout reported the vulnerabilities to Apple and timed release of their reports with Apple’s release of the patches contained in iOS 9.3.5.

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