Lebanese Spy Agency Likely Behind Fake Messaging Apps, Researchers Say

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The nation-state-run campaign being called Dark Caracal has been ongoing, undetected for years, despite not being all that sophisticated.

Cybersecurity researchers say they have identified one of the most prolific international cyber espionage campaigns ever recorded and the first to primarily target mobile devices worldwide.

The campaign dubbed Dark Caracal isn’t novel: It relies on widely used tools and techniques and doesn’t employ zero-day exploits. It is, however, a textbook example of how to conduct cyber espionage without advanced tools and highlights the growing focus on mobile devices as the main target.

According to researchers at Lookout and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Dark Caracal has likely been operating out of Lebanese government offices in Beirut since at least 2012, reaping highly personal information on targets associated with foreign governments and militaries, financial institutions, defense contractors and academia—the usual suspects when looking at targets of nation-state actors.

“Dark Caracal targets include individuals and entities that a nation-state might typically attack,” according to a joint report from Lookout and EFF released on Jan. 18. “We specifically uncovered data associated with military personnel, enterprises, medical professionals, activists, journalists, lawyers, and educational institutions during this investigation. Types of data include documents, call records, audio recordings, secure messaging client content, contact information, text messages, photos, and account data.”

“It is definitely nation-state” espionage, Lookout Security Research Services Lead Michael Flossman told Nextgov. “The main goal, from the tooling that we’re seeing, is to gather intelligence. Unlike other malware that might be financially focused, the definite object here was to get as much information as possible about those targets.”

Researchers say they have found more than 90 indicators of compromise. In most cases, the attackers used phishing techniques and other social engineering tactics to infect users’ devices—desktops, laptops and phones—though the ultimate goal was to compromise mobile devices.

Once compromised, the actors uploaded applications designed to look and function just like their legitimate counterparts but give full surveillance access to Dark Caracal. These included Signal, WhatsApp and Plus Messenger among 11 messaging apps; at least two cybersecurity apps: Psiphon VPN and Orbot: TOR Proxy; as well as mimicking updates for Adobe Flash Player and Google Play Push, though these did not have full functionality.

Using this tactic, Dark Caracal was “able to gain deep insight into each of the victim’s lives,” the report states. Text messages seem to be a primary focus, including personal and work-related communications; one-time pins for two-factor authentication and other security measures that could be used to orchestrate greater surveillance; and even receipts and airline reservations.

While U.S. targets were identified, Lookout researchers did not find any evidence that U.S. government officials or agencies were compromised, Flossman said.

What is most interesting, according to Flossman, is how successful this campaign has been without using any zero-day exploits or new tactics. He ascribes this success to a combination of luck and hiding in the noise: Since Dark Caracal’s techniques looked the same as everyone else’s, their actions were often attributed to other groups.

The infrastructure—the types of malware and the kinds of devices and systems being targeted—being used by Dark Caracal is similar to that used by other groups, including Operation Manul, which targeted activists and journalists critical of the Kazakhstan government. However, Dark Caracal’s targets are unique and the group uses different software for its command and control servers, leaving a digital footprint for investigators to follow.

That trail led back to a Lebanese intelligence agency: the General Directorate of General Security.

“Devices for testing and operating the campaign were traced back to a building belonging to the Lebanese General Directorate of General Security,” the report explains. “Based on the available evidence, it is likely that the GDGS is associated with or directly supporting the actors behind Dark Caracal.

While there’s no evidence U.S. agencies have been compromised, researchers said there are important lessons to be learned from Dark Caracal.

“Place controls at the endpoints,” Flossman said. “For close to two decades now we’ve been building controls around our desktop environments.” While at the same time, the move toward mobility and the conveniences it offers has created a large security hole, he added.

Today, mobile devices are “the primary computer we’re using day to day,” said Lookout security researcher Andrew Blaich. “We’re spending more time on our phones, we have all of our personal data and some of our confidential work and government work on our phones, as well, so that becomes the primary target. If you can get at that without a zero-day, that’s amazing.”

As of the Jan. 18 report, Dark Caracal is still operating, continuously uploading data from infected devices in more than 21 countries.