Popular Chinese iOS apps compromised in unprecedented malware attack

What happened?

According to recent reports, some versions of Xcode used by developers in China have been compromised and are being used to inject tracking codes in iOS apps without developer knowledge. (1,2). Unaware of the injection, those developers then released their compromised iOS apps to the App Store which were then later approved by Apple. At the time of writing this post, the compromised apps are still available in the App store. Any user who has installed and launched these compromised apps will be a victim of these tracking codes.

This is a significant compromise of Apple’s app store. Apple notoriously manually reviews all app submissions and, in comparison to Android stores, has been relatively malware-free. This is the most widespread and significant spread of malware in the history of the Apple app store, anywhere in the world.

The compromised version of Xcode was hosted on Baidu Pan. It is unlikely that Baidu was aware of the compromised version of Xcode. The company removed the files yesterday when news of the compromise surfaced. Because of slow download speeds from foreign websites in China, many Chinese developers prefer to download apps from domestic websites. Many Chinese also use download software like Xunlei, rather than downloading directly from the official Mac App Store.

According to users reports, many prominent Chinese apps are affected. We have included links to the compromised apps in the list below but DO NOT DOWNLOAD these apps. We are simply linking to them so that users can recognize the apps. Affected apps include:  

Wechat The most popolar messaging app in China 

网易云音乐 (NetEase Cloud Music) - Netease free Spotify-type app

网易公开课 (NetEase) - open education app, used by many students

中信银行动卡空间 (China CITIC Bank Card Space)

中国联通手机营业厅 (China Unicom Shop)

滴滴出行 (DiDi travel) - the popular car sharing app

12306 - only train ticketing website

高德地图 (Auto-Navigation)

It is important to note that the two Netease apps are official apps from Netease. Netease is one of the biggest internet companies in China. Wechat is the most popular messaging app in China. China Unicom is one of China’s major telecom companies and CITIC is one of the country’s largest banks. These apps are likely to be extremely popular and highly trusted by users. It is extremely irresponsible for developers in those companies to ignore digital signature warnings and to continue to use compromised Xcode. If the malware author did a targeted attack against wechat or CITIC, he would have been able to gain users credentials, collect chat history, contact list or even banking details!

Netease has already posted a warning about its music app for users:

Wechat also acknowleged the problem. 

What can compromised users do to mitigate this attack?

If you are an iPhone user, there is little you can do. Do not download the above apps. Do not give permissions to apps unless absolutely necessary. Enable two-step verification for Apple ID. Even though this specific malware does not seem to target Apple IDs at this time, it is possible that in the future more aggressive malware will be used to display a fake window asking for sign-in credentials. According to paloaltonetworks, the current malware is affecting:

  • Current time

  • Current infected app name

  • The app bundle identifier

  • Current device name and type

  • Current system language and country

  • Current device UUID

  • Network type

 

If you are an iOS developer, however, a lot can be done to secure your development system:

  • Always download Xcode from the official Mac App Store. For other developer tools, always download these from official sources.

  • Always check the digital signature of developer tools. It is irresponsible for developers to ignore signature warnings. Xcode clearly should have been signed by Apple; all other versions should have produced user warnings.

  • Separate your development system with your everyday system. Development systems should be used solely for development and not for browsing random sites. If physical separation presents too much of a problem for developers, at the very least, a dedicated user account for development should be used.

What should Apple do to mitigate this compromise?

Apple should immediately scan their entire App Store to look for malware signatures and to remove all apps that are affected.

Apple’s Gatekeeper should implement a pre-loaded list of apps to enforce signature validation. For example, if Xcode and other crucial apps have invalid signatures, the OS should not allow users to bypass and proceed with installation. (This idea is similar to HSTS preload, in an effort to prevent network attacks.)

We have asked Apple to comment on their mitigation strategy in this instance and to outline their plans for future defense mechanisms to avoid a repeat of this situation.

Update: Apple scanned and took down infected apps in the App store and sent emails to urge developers to download Xcode from official sources.

Who is behind the attack and why would somebody create this compromise?

CoderFun first started to release compromised Xcode about 5 months ago.

 

It seems that this particular malware is being used to collect device information for data mining. However, the malware could have been used more aggressively to collect private information such as contacts, photos, and even iCloud passwords via phishing when combined with other evasion mechanisms to counter manual reviews.
 

References:

http://drops.wooyun.org/news/8864

http://weibo.com/1708947107/CAVdJ8Epo?from=page_1005051708947107_profile&wvr=6&mod=weibotime&type=comment#_rnd1442530292827

http://researchcenter.paloaltonetworks.com/2015/09/novel-malware-xcodeghost-modifies-xcode-infects-apple-ios-apps-and-hits-app-store/

 

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Tue, May 23, 2017

Is China establishing cyber sovereignty in the United States?

Last week Twitter came under attack from a DDoS attack orchestrated by the Chinese authorities. While such attacks are not uncommon for websites like Twitter, this one proved unusual. While the Chinese authorities use the Great Firewall to block harmful content from reaching its citizens, it now uses DDoS attacks to take down content that appears on websites beyond its borders. For the Chinese authorities, it is not simply good enough to “protect” the interests of Chinese citizens at home - in their view of cyber sovereignty, any content that might harm China’s interests must be removed, regardless of where the website is located.

And so last week the Chinese authorities determined that Twitter was the target. In particular, the authorities targeted the Twitter account for Guo Wengui (https://twitter.com/KwokMiles), the rebel billionaire who is slowly leaking information about corrupt Chinese government officials via his Twitter account and through his YouTube videos. Guo appeared to ramp up his whistle-blowing efforts last week and the Chinese authorities, in turn, ramped up theirs.

via https://twitter.com/KwokMiles/status/863689935798374401

Mon, Dec 12, 2016

China is the obstacle to Google’s plan to end internet censorship

It’s been three years since Eric Schmidt proclaimed that Google would chart a course to ending online censorship within ten years. Now is a great time to check on Google’s progress, reassess the landscape, benchmark Google’s efforts against others who share the same goal, postulate on the China strategy and offer suggestions on how they might effectively move forward.

flowers on google china plaque

Flowers left outside Google China’s headquarters after its announcement it might leave the country in 2010. Photo: Wikicommons.

What has Google accomplished since November 2013?

The first thing they have accomplished is an entire rebranding of both Google (now Alphabet) and Google Ideas (now Jigsaw). Throughout this blog post, reference is made to both new and old company names.

Google has started to develop two main tools which they believe can help in the fight against censorship. Jigsaw’s DDoS protection service, Project Shield, is effectively preventing censorship-inspired DDoS attacks and recently helped to repel an attack on Brian Krebs’ blog. The service is similar to other anti-DDoS services developed by internet freedom champions and for-profit services like Cloudflare.

Thu, Nov 24, 2016

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Facebook is considering launching a censorship tool that would enable the world’s biggest social network to “enter” the China market. Sadly, nobody will be surprised by anything that Mark Zuckerberg decides to do in order to enter the China market. With such low expectations, Facebook is poised to usurp Apple as China’s favorite foreign intelligence gathering partner. If the company launches in China using this strategy they will also successfully erase any bargaining power that other media organizations may hold with the Chinese authorities.

Tue, Jul 05, 2016

GreatFire.org now testing VPN speed and stability in China

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Our newest website, Circumvention Central (CC), aims to provide real-time information and data about circumvention solutions that work in China. Since 2011, we have been collecting data about blocked websites in China and now we will add data about the effectiveness of VPNs and other circumvention tools.

We are launching CC with four main objectives in mind.

Our first objective is to help to grow the number of Chinese who circumvent censorship restrictions in China. By sharing our information and data about these tools, we hope to show a wider audience which circumvention tools are working.

Our second objective is to improve the circumvention experience for users in China by bringing transparency to tool performance. We will measure these tools on speed (how quickly popular websites are loaded) and on stability (the extent to which popular websites load successfully).

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Could the New York Times be setting the best path forward for news organizations in China?
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Thanks for covering this important security issue. The WeChat team has recently posted an update about their response to the issue and it would be great if you could amend your article to include the response. Find the official English response here: http://blog.wechat.com/2015/09/19/fixed-security-flaw-in-wechat-v6-2-5-f...

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