Cyberwarfare / Nation-State Attacks , Fraud Management & Cybercrime , Geo Focus: Asia

Chinese Cyber Spies Target Southeast Asian Mobile Users

Espionage Actors Deployed Highly Modular Spyware to Spy on Android and iOS Devices
Chinese Cyber Spies Target Southeast Asian Mobile Users
Image: Shutterstock

Security researchers have observed Chinese-speaking threat actors using a highly modular espionage malware to target individuals in India and Southeast Asia and exfiltrate highly sensitive data from their devices.

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Canadian cybersecurity company BlackBerry said threat actors used compromised news websites carrying stories related to Hong Kong as bait to induce targeted mobile device users to click on malicious links.

Once clicked, a malicious web page downloads a first-state loader that collects device information and downloads additional implants, including LightSpy surveillance and data-stealer malware that captures and exfiltrates user-generated data to its command-and-control server.

BlackBerry's analysis follows cybersecurity company ThreatFabric revealing in October how Chinese espionage group Wicked Panda, also tracked as Barium, Earth Baku and Winnti, used a malicious version of WeChat as bait to gain broad access to targeted mobile devices.

The cyberespionage group deployed LightSpy on victim devices to steal a range of sensitive information such as the precise location of the victim inside a building, payment data, call recordings and chat archives (see: Chinese APT Actors Target WeChat Users).

Security researchers have previously described LightSpy as a highly modular malware framework that allows its operators to introduce additional modules to enhance its effectiveness. Aside from LightSpy, Wicked Panda has also used other modular malware frameworks, such as WyrmSpy and DragonEgg, to target Android mobile devices.

The cyberespionage group customized LightSpy in 2023 to target iOS mobile devices and fitted it with dozens of plugins that feature surveillance and data exfiltration capabilities, thereby increasing their victim base and the amount of data they collected from mobile devices in targeted regions.

BlackBerry threat researcher Dmitry Melikov said in a blog post the LightSpy package used in attacks on mobile device users in India and Southeast Asia features a versatile framework known as "F_Warehouse" that includes more capabilities than previously tracked variants.

The framework can capture audio through the device's microphone, collect information about nearby WiFi networks, harvest browser data, retrieve sensitive data stored within the user's keychain, identify and list devices connected to the compromised system, take photos using the device camera and gather details about installed applications.

The malware framework also collects detailed browsing history from both Safari and Google Chrome browsers. The list of captured information includes specific web addresses of visited websites, timestamps of website visits and unique identifiers for history entries. "This granular level of detail allows the attacker to gain a deep understanding of the victim's online activities and interests," Melikov said.

"The targeting of individuals in Southern Asia, coupled with the suspected Chinese origin of the attackers, raises concerns about the potential motives and geopolitical implications of this campaign," he wrote. "Though typically deployed against a very small percentage of individuals – most usually journalists, activists, politicians and diplomats – hyper-focused spyware attacks are an ongoing and global threat."

BlackBerry said detections of LightSpy malware activity targeting Indian and Southeast Asian users coincided with Apple's warning in India about cyberespionage actors targeting the iOS devices of several sitting members of Parliament and journalists (see: Apple Alert on iPhone Hacking Fuels Spyware Fears in India).

"These attackers are likely targeting you because of who you are or what you do," Apple warned users in October. "If your device is compromised by a state-sponsored attacker, they may be able to remotely access your sensitive data, communications, or even the camera and microphone. While it’s possible this is a false alarm, please take this warning seriously."

Apple sent threat notifications to a former minister of state for external affairs, former chief ministers of various states, senior parliamentarians, political party spokespersons, party leaders, senior journalists and popular civil society activists, but refused to attribute the attacks to a single actor.

According to BlackBerry, LightSpy's modular characteristics and Chinese espionage groups' growing variety of tools and capabilities indicate that the threat of digital surveillance operations may become more severe in the future.

"LightSpy's capabilities extend beyond data exfiltration and surveillance. The malware can also download and run a plugin designed to execute shell commands received from the attacker's malicious server," Melikov warned. "This functionality grants the threat actor the potential for full control over the victim's device, enabling them to perform numerous actions beyond the core functions of the spyware."

About the Author

Jayant Chakravarti

Jayant Chakravarti

Senior Editor, APAC

Chakravarti covers cybersecurity developments in the Asia-Pacific region. He has been writing about technology since 2014, including for Ziff Davis.

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