April 11, 2017

Pegasus: The ultimate spyware for iOS and Android

News Special Project Threats

Apple iPhone and iPad users usually believe they are safe. There’s no malware for iOS, they say. Apple does little to discourage the impression — the “fruit company” doesn’t even allow antivirus solutions in its App Store, because, you know, allegedly they’re not needed.

Pegasus: The ultimate spyware for iOS and Android

The keyword here is allegedly. There actually is malware in the wild that targets iOS users — it’s been proved a number of times, and in August 2016 researchers proved it again by revealing the existence of Pegasus, spyware capable of hacking any iPad or iPhone, harvesting data about the victim, and establishing surveillance on them. That discovery made the whole cybersecurity world… uneasy.

At our Security Analyst Summit, researchers from Lookout revealed that Pegasus exists not only for iOS, but for Android as well. The Android version is different in some ways from its iOS predecessor. Let’s shed some light on Pegasus and explain why we use the word “ultimate” to describe it.

Pegasus: The beginning

Pegasus was discovered thanks to Ahmed Mansoor, a UAE human rights activist, who happened to be one of its targets. It was a spear-phishing attack: He received several SMS messages that contained what he thought were malicious links, so he sent those messages to security experts from Citizen Lab, and they brought another cybersecurity firm, Lookout, to the investigation.

Mansoor was right. If he had clicked, his iPhone would have been infected with malware — malware for iOS. For non-jailbroken iOS, to be precise. The malware was dubbed Pegasus, and Lookout researchers called it the most sophisticated attack they’d ever seen on any endpoint.

Pegasus has been attributed to the NSO Group, an Israeli company whose bread and butter is developing spyware. That means the malware is commercial — it’s sold to whoever is willing to pay for it. Pegasus relied on a whopping three zero-day (previously unknown) vulnerabilities in iOS that allowed it to silently jailbreak the device and install surveillance software. Another cybersecurity firm, Zerodium, once offered $1 million for an iOS zero-day, so you can imagine that it cost quite a bit of money to create Pegasus.

As for surveillance, let’s be clear: We’re talking total surveillance. Pegasus is modular malware. 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, contacts, and so on and so forth. Basically, it can spy on every aspect of the target’s life.

It’s also noteworthy that Pegasus could even listen to encrypted audio streams and read encrypted messages — thanks to its keylogging and audio recording capabilities, it was stealing messages before they were encrypted (and, for incoming messages, after decryption).

Another interesting fact about Pegasus is that it tries to hide itself really diligently. The malware self-destructs if it is not able to communicate with its command-and-control (C&C) server for more than 60 days, or if it detects that it was installed on the wrong device with the wrong SIM card (remember, this is targeted spying; NSO’s clients weren’t going after random victims).

All the pretty horses

Maybe the developers of Pegasus thought that they had invested too much in this project to limit it to one platform. After the first version was discovered, it didn’t take long to find the second, and at the Security Analyst Summit 2017, Lookout researchers had a talk on Pegasus for Android, also known as Chrysaor — that’s what Google calls it. The Android version is very similar to its iOS sister in terms of its capabilities, but different in terms of the techniques it uses to penetrate the device.

Pegasus for Android does not rely on zero-day vulnerabilities. Instead it uses a well-known rooting method called Framaroot. Another difference: If iOS version fails to jailbreak the device, the whole attack fails, but with the Android version, even if the malware fails to obtain the necessary root access to install surveillance software, it will still try directly asking the user for the permissions it needs to exfiltrate at least some data.

Google claims that only a few dozen Android devices have been infected, but for a targeted cyberespionage attack, that’s a lot. The greatest number of Pegasus for Android installations was observed in Israel, with Georgia in second place and Mexico third. Pegasus for Android was also spotted in Turkey, Kenya, Nigeria, UAE, and other countries.

You are probably safe, but…

When news of the iOS version of Pegasus got out, Apple was quick to react. The company issued an iOS security update (9.3.5) that patched all three of the aforementioned vulnerabilities.

Google, which helped investigate the case with the Android version, took another path and notified potential Pegasus targets directly. If you’ve updated your iOS gadgets to the latest software version and haven’t received a warning message from Google, you are probably safe and not under surveillance by Pegasus.

However, that doesn’t mean that there is no other yet-unknown spyware around both for iOS and Android. And the existence of Pegasus proved that iOS malware goes beyond badly coded adware and ransom-demanding websites, which are quite easy to block. There are some serious threats in the wild. We have three simple tips here for you to stay as safe as possible:

  1. Update your devices on time, without fail, and pay special attention to security updates.
  2. Install a good security solution on each of your devices. There are none for iOS, but we hope that Pegasus will make Apple rethink its policy.
  3. Don’t fall for phishing, even if it’s targeted spear phishing like in the case with Ahmed Mansoor. If you receive a link from an unknown source, don’t click on it automatically. Think before you click — or don’t click at all.