Popular Chinese iOS apps compromised in unprecedented malware attack

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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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Mon, Aug 03, 2020

Announcing the Release of GreatFire Appmaker

GreatFire (https://en.greatfire.org/), a China-focused censorship monitoring organization, is proud to announce that we have developed and released a new anti-censorship tool that will enable any blocked media outlet, blogger, human rights group, or civil society organization to evade censors and get their content onto the phones of millions of readers and supporters in China and other countries that censor the Internet.

GreatFire has built an Android mobile app creator, called “GreatFire AppMaker”, that can be used by organizations to unblock their content for users in China and other countries. Organizations can visit a website (https://appmaker.greatfire.org/) which will compile an app that is branded with the organization’s own logo and will feature their own, formerly blocked content. The app will also contain a special, censorship-circumventing web browser so that users can access the uncensored World Wide Web. The apps will use multiple strategies, including machine learning, to evade advanced censorship tactics employed by the Chinese authorities.  This project will work equally well in other countries that have China-like censorship restrictions. For both organizations and end users, the apps will be free, fast, and extremely easy to use.

This project was inspired by China-based GreatFire’s first-hand experience with our own FreeBrowser app (https://freebrowser.org/en) and desire to help small NGOs who may not have the in-house expertise to circumvent Chinese censorship. GreatFire’s anti-censorship tools have worked in China when others do not. FreeBrowser directs Chinese internet users to normally censored stories from the app’s start page (http://manyvoices.news/).

Fri, Jul 24, 2020

Apple, anticompetition, and censorship

On July 20, 2020, GreatFire wrote to all 13 members of the Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law of the U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary, requesting a thorough examination into Apple’s practice of censorship of its App Store, and an investigation into how the company collaborates with the Chinese authorities to maintain its unique position as one of the few foreign tech companies operating profitably in the Chinese digital market.  

This letter was sent a week before Apple CEO TIm Cook will be called for questioning in front of the Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law. The CEOs of Amazon, Google and Facebook will also be questioned on July 27, as part of the Committee’s ongoing investigation into competition in the digital marketplace.

This hearing offers an opportunity to detail to the Subcommittee how Apple uses its closed operating ecosystem to not only abuse its market position but also to deprive certain users, most notably those in China, of their right to download and use apps related to privacy, secure communication, and censorship circumvention.

We hope that U.S. House representatives agree with our view that Apple should not be allowed to do elsewhere what would be considered as unacceptable in the U.S. Chinese citizens are not second class citizens. Private companies such as Apple compromise themselves and their self-proclaimed values of freedom and privacy when they collaborate with the Chinese government and its censors.

Mon, Jun 10, 2019

Apple Censoring Tibetan Information in China

Apple has a long history of censorship when it comes to information about Tibet. In 2009, it was revealed that several apps related to the Dalai Lama were not available in the China App Store. The developers of these apps were not notified that their apps were removed. When confronted with these instances of censorship, an Apple spokesperson simply said that the company “continues to comply with local laws”.

In December, 2017, at a conference in China, when asked about working with the Chinese authorities to censor the Apple App Store, Tim Cook proclaimed:

"Your choice is: do you participate, or do you stand on the sideline and yell at how things should be. And my own view very strongly is you show up and you participate, you get in the arena because nothing ever changes from the sideline."

In the ten years since Apple was first criticized for working with the Chinese authorities to silence already marginalized voices, what has changed? Apple continues to strictly follow the censorship orders of the Chinese authorities. When does Tim Cook expect that his company will help to bring about positive change in China?

Based on data generated from https://applecensorship.com, Apple has now censored 29 popular Tibetan mobile applications in the China App Store. Tibetan-themed apps dealing with news, religious study, tourism, and even games are being censored by Apple. A full list of the censored apps appear below.

Thu, Jun 06, 2019

Report Shines Spotlight on Apple’s Censorship Practices in China

The newest Ranking Digital Rights Corporate Accountability Index makes recommendations on what companies and governments need to do in order to improve the protection of internet users’ human rights around the world. Ranking Digital Rights (RDR) works to promote freedom of expression and privacy on the internet by creating global standards and incentives for companies to respect and protect users’ rights.

In their 2019 Accountability Index, RDR looks at the policies of 24 of the world’s most important internet companies in respect to freedom of expression and privacy and highlights the companies that have made improvements and those companies that need to do more. RDR notes that:

Insufficient transparency makes it easier for private parties, governments, and companies themselves to abuse their power over online speech and avoid accountability.

In particular, the report highlights how Apple has abused their power over online speech, and notes instances of this in China. According to the report, Apple has not disclosed data around the content that it removes from its App Store when faced with requests from the government authorities.

While [Apple] disclosed data about government requests to restrict accounts, it disclosed no data about content removal requests, such as requests to remove apps from its App Store. Apple revealed little about policies and practices affecting freedom of expression, scoring below all other U.S. companies in this category.

The report makes intelligent and sensible recommendations for governments. However, the recommendations also highlight how difficult it is to have these discussions with governments like China’s.

Thu, Nov 30, 2017

About those 674 apps that Apple censored in China

Apple opened the door on its censorship practices in China - but just a crack.
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