Security

Hackers used spyware made in Spain to target users in the UAE, Google says

Comment

spyware illustrated; blank smartphone screen over background of multiple eyes
Image Credits: Bryce Durbin / TechCrunch

In November 2022, Google revealed the existence of a then-unknown spyware vendor called Variston. Now, Google researchers say they have seen hackers use Variston’s tools in the United Arab Emirates.

In a report published on Wednesday, Google’s Threat Analysis Group (TAG) said it discovered hackers targeting people in the UAE who used Samsung’s native Android browser, which is a customized version of Chromium. The hackers used a set of vulnerabilities chained together and delivered via one-time web links sent to the targets by text message. Of the four vulnerabilities in the chain, two were zero-days at the time of the attack, meaning they had not been reported to the software maker and were unknown at that point, according to the new blog post by TAG.

If a target clicked on the malicious web links, they would have been directed to a landing page “identical to the one TAG examined in the Heliconia framework developed by commercial spyware vendor Variston.” (Both campaigns used the same exact and unique landing page, Google told TechCrunch. Once exploited the victim would have been infected with “a fully featured Android spyware suite” designed to capture data from chat and browser apps, according to the post.

“The actor using the exploit chain to target UAE users may be a customer or partner of Variston, or otherwise working closely with the spyware vendor,” the blog post read.

It’s unclear who is behind the hacking campaign or who the victims are. A Google spokesperson told TechCrunch that TAG observed about 10 malicious web links in the wild. Some of the links redirected to StackOverflow after exploitation and may have been the attacker’s test devices, Google said. TAG said it wasn’t clear who was behind the hacking campaign.

Samsung spokesperson Chris Langlois said that the company has “already taken necessary steps to prevent these potential exploit chains by issuing patches for the Samsung Internet app in December 2022.”

“December’s updates to the Samsung Internet app disable entry points for the remaining vulnerabilities and ensure devices are protected. We are actively collaborating with our partners to release patches for the remaining vulnerabilities as early as possible, starting in April, and recommend all users keep their devices updated with the latest software to ensure the highest level of protection possible,” Langlois said.

Ralf Wegener and Ramanan Jayaraman are the founders of Variston, according to Intelligence Online, an online news publication that covers the surveillance industry. The two owned half of the company each in 2018, according to Spanish business records.

Neither founder responded to a request for comment. Variston is headquartered in Barcelona, Spain. According to business registration records in Italy, Variston acquired the Italian zero-day research company Truel in 2018.

The hacking campaign in the UAE was discovered by Amnesty International’s Security Lab. In a press release, Amnesty said that the campaign has been active since at least 2020 and targeted both mobile phones and computers. Amnesty said they observed the exploits being delivered by a network of more than 1,000 malicious domains, “including domains spoofing media websites in multiple countries.” The organization also said they observed traces of the campaign in Indonesia, Belarus, the UAE and Italy, but these countries “likely represent only a small subset of the overall attack campaign based on the extensive nature of the wider attack infrastructure.”

Google also said on Wednesday that it discovered hackers exploiting an iOS zero-day bug, patched in November, to remotely plant spyware on users’ devices. The researchers say they observed attackers abusing the security flaw as part of an exploit chain targeting iPhone owners running iOS 15.1 and older located in Italy, Malaysia and Kazakhstan.

The flaw was found in the WebKit browser engine that powers Safari and other apps, and was first discovered and reported by Google TAG researchers. Apple patched the bug in December, confirming at the time that the company was aware that the vulnerability was actively exploited “against versions of iOS released before iOS 15.1.”

Hackers also used a second iOS vulnerability described as a PAC bypass technique that was fixed by Apple in March 2022, which Google researchers say is the exact technique used by North Macedonian spyware developer Cytrox to install its Predator spyware. Citizen Lab previously released a report highlighting widespread government use of the Predator spyware.

Google also observed hackers exploiting a chain of three Android bugs targeting devices running an ARM-based graphics chip, including one zero-day. Google said ARM released a fix, but several vendors — including Samsung, Xiaomi, Oppo and Google itself — did not incorporate the patch, resulting in “a situation where attackers were able to freely exploit the bug for several months,” Google said.

The discovery of these new hacking campaigns is “a reminder that the commercial spyware industry continues to thrive, says Google. “Even smaller surveillance vendors have access to 0-days, and vendors stockpiling and using 0-day vulnerabilities in secret poses a severe risk to the Internet.”

“These campaigns may also indicate that exploits and techniques are being shared between surveillance vendors, enabling the proliferation of dangerous hacking tools,” the blog read.

This story has been updated with a statement from Amnesty International, and Samsung.

Spyware vendor Variston exploited Chrome, Firefox and Windows zero-days, says Google

More TechCrunch

When the founders of Sagetap, Sahil Khanna and Kevin Hughes, started working at early-stage enterprise software startups, they were surprised to find that the companies they worked at were trying…

Deal Dive: Sagetap looks to bring enterprise software sales into the 21st century

Keeping up with an industry as fast-moving as AI is a tall order. So until an AI can do it for you, here’s a handy roundup of recent stories in the world…

This Week in AI: OpenAI moves away from safety

After Apple loosened its App Store guidelines to permit game emulators, the retro game emulator Delta — an app 10 years in the making — hit the top of the…

Adobe comes after indie game emulator Delta for copying its logo

Meta is once again taking on its competitors by developing a feature that borrows concepts from others — in this case, BeReal and Snapchat. The company is developing a feature…

Meta’s latest experiment borrows from BeReal’s and Snapchat’s core ideas

Welcome to Startups Weekly! We’ve been drowning in AI news this week, with Google’s I/O setting the pace. And Elon Musk rages against the machine.

Startups Weekly: It’s the dawning of the age of AI — plus,  Musk is raging against the machine

IndieBio’s Bay Area incubator is about to debut its 15th cohort of biotech startups. We took special note of a few, which were making some major, bordering on ludicrous, claims…

IndieBio’s SF incubator lineup is making some wild biotech promises

YouTube TV has announced that its multiview feature for watching four streams at once is now available on Android phones and tablets. The Android launch comes two months after YouTube…

YouTube TV’s ‘multiview’ feature is now available on Android phones and tablets

Featured Article

Two Santa Cruz students uncover security bug that could let millions do their laundry for free

CSC ServiceWorks provides laundry machines to thousands of residential homes and universities, but the company ignored requests to fix a security bug.

23 hours ago
Two Santa Cruz students uncover security bug that could let millions do their laundry for free

OpenAI’s Superalignment team, responsible for developing ways to govern and steer “superintelligent” AI systems, was promised 20% of the company’s compute resources, according to a person from that team. But…

OpenAI created a team to control ‘superintelligent’ AI — then let it wither, source says

TechCrunch Disrupt 2024 is just around the corner, and the buzz is palpable. But what if we told you there’s a chance for you to not just attend, but also…

Harness the TechCrunch Effect: Host a Side Event at Disrupt 2024

Decks are all about telling a compelling story and Goodcarbon does a good job on that front. But there’s important information missing too.

Pitch Deck Teardown: Goodcarbon’s $5.5M seed deck

Slack is making it difficult for its customers if they want the company to stop using its data for model training.

Slack under attack over sneaky AI training policy

A Texas-based company that provides health insurance and benefit plans disclosed a data breach affecting almost 2.5 million people, some of whom had their Social Security number stolen. WebTPA said…

Healthcare company WebTPA discloses breach affecting 2.5 million people

Featured Article

Microsoft dodges UK antitrust scrutiny over its Mistral AI stake

Microsoft won’t be facing antitrust scrutiny in the U.K. over its recent investment into French AI startup Mistral AI.

1 day ago
Microsoft dodges UK antitrust scrutiny over its Mistral AI stake

Ember has partnered with HSBC in the U.K. so that the bank’s business customers can access Ember’s services from their online accounts.

Embedded finance is still trendy as accounting automation startup Ember partners with HSBC UK

Kudos uses AI to figure out consumer spending habits so it can then provide more personalized financial advice, like maximizing rewards and utilizing credit effectively.

Kudos lands $10M for an AI smart wallet that picks the best credit card for purchases

The EU’s warning comes after Microsoft failed to respond to a legally binding request for information that focused on its generative AI tools.

EU warns Microsoft it could be fined billions over missing GenAI risk info

The prospects for troubled banking-as-a-service startup Synapse have gone from bad to worse this week after a United States Trustee filed an emergency motion on Wednesday.  The trustee is asking…

A US Trustee wants troubled fintech Synapse to be liquidated via Chapter 7 bankruptcy, cites ‘gross mismanagement’

U.K.-based Seraphim Space is spinning up its 13th accelerator program, with nine participating companies working on a range of tech from propulsion to in-space manufacturing and space situational awareness. The…

Seraphim’s latest space accelerator welcomes nine companies

OpenAI has reached a deal with Reddit to use the social news site’s data for training AI models. In a blog post on OpenAI’s press relations site, the company said…

OpenAI inks deal to train AI on Reddit data

X users will now be able to discover posts from new Communities that are trending directly from an Explore tab within the section.

X pushes more users to Communities

For Mark Zuckerberg’s 40th birthday, his wife got him a photoshoot. Zuckerberg gives the camera a sly smile as he sits amid a carefully crafted re-creation of his childhood bedroom.…

Mark Zuckerberg’s makeover: Midlife crisis or carefully crafted rebrand?

Strava announced a slew of features, including AI to weed out leaderboard cheats, a new ‘family’ subscription plan, dark mode and more.

Strava taps AI to weed out leaderboard cheats, unveils ‘family’ plan, dark mode and more

We all fall down sometimes. Astronauts are no exception. You need to be in peak physical condition for space travel, but bulky space suits and lower gravity levels can be…

Astronauts fall over. Robotic limbs can help them back up.

Microsoft will launch its custom Cobalt 100 chips to customers as a public preview at its Build conference next week, TechCrunch has learned. In an analyst briefing ahead of Build,…

Microsoft’s custom Cobalt chips will come to Azure next week

What a wild week for transportation news! It was a smorgasbord of news that seemed to touch every sector and theme in transportation.

Tesla keeps cutting jobs and the feds probe Waymo

Sony Music Group has sent letters to more than 700 tech companies and music streaming services to warn them not to use its music to train AI without explicit permission.…

Sony Music warns tech companies over ‘unauthorized’ use of its content to train AI

Winston Chi, Butter’s founder and CEO, told TechCrunch that “most parties, including our investors and us, are making money” from the exit.

GrubMarket buys Butter to give its food distribution tech an AI boost

The investor lawsuit is related to Bolt securing a $30 million personal loan to Ryan Breslow, which was later defaulted on.

Bolt founder Ryan Breslow wants to settle an investor lawsuit by returning $37 million worth of shares

Meta, the parent company of Facebook, launched an enterprise version of the prominent social network in 2015. It always seemed like a stretch for a company built on a consumer…

With the end of Workplace, it’s fair to wonder if Meta was ever serious about the enterprise