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Most of the spyware you hear about today are powerful nation-state-backed exploits that can silently and remotely infiltrate iPhones anywhere in the world. These powerful hacking tools are bought and operated by governments, often targeting their most vocal critics – journalists, activists and human rights defenders.
There is another type of spyware that is more common and more likely to affect ordinary people: consumer-grade spyware applications that are controlled by ordinary people.
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Consumer-grade spyware is often sold under the name child monitoring software, but is also known as “stalkerware” because of its ability to track and monitor other people or spouses without their consent. The Stalkerware app is installed secretly by someone who has physical access to someone’s phone and is hidden from the home screen, but it silently and continuously uploads call logs, text messages, photos, browsing history, exact location data and call recording knowledge . Many of these spy apps are built for Android because it’s easier to install malicious apps than on an iPhone, which has tighter restrictions on the types of apps that can be installed and the data that can be accessed .
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Last October, a security issue with consumer spyware was disclosed that put the private phone data, messages and locations of hundreds of thousands of people, including Americans, at risk.
But in this case, it wasn’t just a spy app that leaked data into people’s phones. This is a full suite of Android spy apps with the same security flaws.
The vulnerability was first discovered as part of a broader investigation into consumer spyware. The vulnerability is simple, which is what makes it so harmful, allowing virtually unlimited remote access to device data. But efforts to covertly disclose the security flaw to prevent it from being abused by malicious actors have been met with silence from those behind the operation, as well as from Codero, the networking company that hosts the backend server infrastructure for the spying operation .
The nature of spyware means that the targeted user may not know that their phone has been compromised. While the bug isn’t expected to be fixed anytime soon, more information is now being revealed about the spyware and how it works so that owners of infected devices can uninstall the spyware themselves when it’s safe to do so.
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Given the complexity of notifying victims, CERT/CC, the Center for Vulnerability Disclosure at Carnegie Mellon University’s Software Engineering Institute, also issued a note on spyware.
Below are the results of a months-long investigation into a massive stalking operation that collected data from approximately 400,000 cell phones worldwide, with the number of victims growing daily, including the United States, Brazil, Indonesia, India, Jamaica, the Philippines, South Africa and Russia.
At the forefront of the action is a series of white-label Android spyware apps that continuously harvest the contents of individual mobile phones, each custom-branded and operated by the same corporate-role websites in the US, which are designed by cloaking their real connection to provide Cover. operator. Behind the apps is a server infrastructure controlled by an operator known as a Vietnam-based company called 1Byte.
Nine nearly identical spy apps with significantly different brands, some with more obscure names than others, were found: Copy9, MxSpy, TheTruthSpy, iSpyoo, SecondClone, TheSpyApp, ExactSpy, FoneTracker, and GuestSpy.
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Apart from the name, these spy apps actually have the same functionality and even the user interface for setting up the spyware is the same. Once installed, each app allows the spyware planter to access a network dashboard to view the victim’s phone data in real time—their messages, contacts, location, photos, and more. Like an app, each dashboard is a clone of the same web software. Also, when we analyzed the network traffic of the applications, we found that all these applications were connecting to the same server infrastructure.
The vulnerability in question is called Insecure Direct Object Reference, or IDOR, a class of bugs that expose files or data on a server due to non-standard or no security controls. This is similar to needing a key to unlock your mailbox, but that key also unlocks all other mailboxes near you. IDOR is one of the most common vulnerabilities. Similar flaws have been discovered and disclosed privately before, such as LabCorp disclosing thousands of lab test results and the recent case of CDC-approved health app Docket disclosing digital records of a COVID-19 vaccine. The advantage of IDORs is that they can often be fixed at the server level without requiring a software update to the application, or in this case, a set of applications.
But shoddy coding doesn’t just expose ordinary people’s private phone data. The entire espionage infrastructure is full of vulnerabilities that reveal more details about the operation itself. So we learned that data on around 400,000 devices – though possibly more – was leaked from the operation. The poor coding also led to the disclosure of personal information by its affiliates, resulting in new paying customers, information they could have considered private; even the operators themselves.
Behind every branded app, web dashboard, and front-end website appears to be a fictitious parent company with its own corporate website. The websites of the parent companies look identical, both claiming to be “software outsourcing” companies with over a decade of experience and hundreds of engineers, each claiming one of the nine branded applications as their flagship product.
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If the same website isn’t an immediate red flag, the parent company’s websites are hosted on the same web server. State and public databases were also searched, but no current business records were found for any of the alleged parent companies.
Jexpa is one of many parent companies. Like other parent companies, Jexpa doesn’t seem to exist on paper, but for a while there was an entity under that name. Jexpa was registered as a technology company in California in 2003, but was suspended from the state business registry in 2009. The company’s domain name was abandoned and expired.
The expired Jexpa domain name was purchased in 2015 by an unnamed buyer. (No evidence has been found of any connection between the former Jexpas and the 2015 purchasers of Jexpa.com.) Jexpa.com now claims to be a software outsourcing company website, but is full of stock photos and dummy pages and used several real-world identities, such as “Leo DiCaprio,” but using photos of Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles. The operators went to great lengths to conceal their true involvement in the operation, including using someone else’s identities to register email addresses – in one case using the name and photo of a New York City deputy police commissioner, in another the name and photo of a former shipping manager.
But Jexpa is much more than a name. Some overlap between Jexpa and the branded spy app was found, including a set of release notes that may not have been intended to be published, but were forgotten and exposed on their servers.
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The release notes detail approximately three years of backend dashboard changes and fixes, detailing how the spyware has evolved since the logs were first created in late 2018, and its latest patch was deployed in April 2021 d. Signed by a developer with a Jexpa.com email address.
The notes also describe fixes to what the developers call the Jexpa framework, the software stack that runs on their servers and is used to host operations, each brand’s web dashboard, and the storage of vast amounts of phone data collected from the spy app. We know this because, as they did with the release notes, the developers also exposed their technical documentation and source code of the Jexpa framework to the Internet.
The document lists specific technical configurations and detailed instructions, and screenshots show parts of several domains and subdomains used by the spyware. These same screenshots also reveal the carrier’s own website, but more on that later. The documentation page also uses examples of the spy apps themselves, such as SecondClone, and details how to set up a new content storage server for each app from scratch, even down to which web host to use (such as Codero, Hostwinds, and Alibaba.) , as they allow specific disk storage settings required for the application to function.
For a company with no obvious business credentials, the operator has gone to great lengths to make Jexpa look like a top performer in operations. But the operator left behind a series of Internet records, exposed source code and documents linking Jexpa, the Jexpa framework and a swarm of spyware applications to a Vietnamese company called 1Byte.
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Shortly after we contacted 1Byte about the vulnerability and its connection to Jexpa, the Jexpa framework documentation page was password-walled, locking us out.
1Byte looks like any other software startup, a small team of Android and .NET
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