According to an investigative journalist team, the Israeli authors of the infamous Pegasus mobile spyware, NSO Group, have been using a spoofed Facebook login page, crafted to look like an internal Facebook security team portal, to lure victims in.
The news comes as Facebook alleges that NSO Group has been using U.S.-based infrastructure to launch espionage attacks. Both issues are relevant to Facebook’s quest to hold NSO accountable under U.S. laws (specifically the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act) for a spate of WhatsApp hacks that came to light last year.
Pegasus, which infects both Android and Apple smartphones, contains a host of spy features. After scanning the target’s device, it installs the necessary modules to read the user’s messages and mail, listen to calls, capture screenshots, log pressed keys, exfiltrate browser history and contacts and carry out other surveillance tasks as needed. It’s widely believed to have been involved in spying on murdered Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi, journalists investigating cartel activity in Mexico and more.
“A former NSO employee provided Motherboard with the IP address of a server setup to infect phones with NSO’s Pegasus hacking tool,” according to a Motherboard investigative report this week. “The IP address provided to Motherboard related to a one-click installation of Pegasus, the former employee said.”
Motherboard’s investigation, partnering with DomainTools and RiskIQ, involved a review of passive domain name server (DNS) records to uncover where the IP address controlled by NSO Group resolved to.
“Throughout 2015 and 2016, the IP address resolved to 10 domains,” the team wrote, one of which impersonated Facebook’s security team. The others were designed to appear as innocuous unsubscribe links, and others were crafted to look like package-tracking links from FedEx.
“Mobile devices are designed for accessibility, convenience and speed – extra security gets in the way of those benefits,” Colin Bastable, CEO of Lucy Security, told Threatpost. “Facebook’s brand property makes it ideal for exploitation by hackers, and in this case the use of a site designed to emulate the Facebook security team is especially adroit.”
Meanwhile, Facebook is in the process of suing the NSO Group over its alleged use of a zero-day exploit for Facebook-owned WhatsApp. In May 2019, a zero-day vulnerability was found in WhatsApp’s messaging platform, exploited by attackers who were able to inject the Pegasus spyware onto victims’ phones in targeted campaigns.
The lawsuit alleges that NSO Group used vulnerable WhatsApp servers to send malware to approximately 1,400 mobile devices. CitizenLab, which assisted Facebook’s investigation into the issue, said that it identified over 100 cases of abusive targeting of human-rights defenders and journalists in at least 20 countries across the globe stemming from NSO Group’s spyware.
Facebook also claims to have evidence that NSO Group launched some of its WhatsApp hacks last year from cloud infrastructure hosted in the U.S.: Court documents filed by Facebook in April detailing alleged specific U.S. IP addresses used by NSO Group, hosted by California-based QuadraNet as well as Amazon.
Its going to be hard for NSO to credibly claim that there is no US nexus to their operations when they were busy paying for server space in American data centers. pic.twitter.com/V8L0yMTK6r
— John Scott-Railton (@jsrailton) April 24, 2020
Facebook also recently filed a lawsuit against related U.S.-based domain registrars Namecheap and Whoisguard, for registering more than 45 domains spoofing Facebook and its services. In a related link to the NSO Group situation, the IP address provided to Motherboard by the NSO Group former employee allegedly resolved to domains registered with Namecheap, including the fake Facebook security portal, Motherboard noted.
Lucy Security’s Bastable pointed out that at the heart of this lies what are essentially phishing pages – even though NSO Group’s activity might be nation-state-level in terms of sophistication, the real exploit at work is of people.
“CISOs need to stop thinking of mobile devices as end-points: the real end-points are the people holding those devices,” he noted. “All the tech in the world is not going to protect users from determined attackers, but teaching people not to click on potentially dangerous links and to be suspicious of uninvited SMS messages and emails would save many people a lot of grief.”
For its part, NSO Group maintains that it is not a highest-bidder black-market exploit broker, that it’s not in the illicit spy business, and that it offers its wares only to legitimate governments for legitimate uses.
“Revisiting and recycling the conjecture of NSO’s detractors, such as CitizenLab, doesn’t change the overall truth of our position, which we have stated to the U.S. Federal Court in California,” an NSO spokesperson told Motherboard. “Our factual assertions have been provided as part of the official court record, and we do not have anything else to add at this time.”
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