Ethiopia uses Ginbot 7 pictures to plant spyware in computers

By IndepthAfrica
In Djibouti
Mar 14th, 2013
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Authors: Morgan Marquis-Boire, Bill Marczak, Claudio Guarnieri, and John Scott-Railton
This post describes the results of a comprehensive global Internet scan for the command and control servers of FinFisher’s surveillance software. It also details the discovery of a campaign using FinFisher in Ethiopia used to target individuals linked to an opposition group. Additionally, it provides examination of a FinSpy Mobile sample found in the wild, which appears to have been used in Vietnam.

Summary of Key Findings

  • We have found command and control servers for FinSpy backdoors, part of Gamma International’s FinFisher “remote monitoring solution,” in a total of 25 countries: Australia, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Brunei, Canada, Czech Republic, Estonia, Ethiopia, Germany, India, Indonesia, Japan, Latvia, Malaysia, Mexico, Mongolia, Netherlands, Qatar, Serbia, Singapore, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, United States, Vietnam.
  • A FinSpy campaign in Ethiopia uses pictures of Ginbot 7, an Ethiopian opposition group, as bait to infect users. This continues the theme of FinSpy deployments with strong indications of politically-motivated targeting.
  • There is strong evidence of a Vietnamese FinSpy Mobile Campaign. We found an Android FinSpy Mobile sample in the wild with a command & control server in Vietnam that also exfiltrates text messages to a local phone number.
  • These findings call into question claims by Gamma International that previously reported servers were not part of their product line, and that previously discovered copies of their software were either stolen or demo copies.

1. Background and Introduction

FinFisher is a line of remote intrusion and surveillance software developed by Munich-based Gamma International GmbH. FinFisher products are marketed and sold exclusively to law enforcement and intelligence agencies by the UK-based Gamma Group.1 Although touted as a “lawful interception” suite for monitoring criminals, FinFisher has gained notoriety because it has been used in targeted attacks against human rights campaigners and opposition activists in countries with questionable human rights records.2

In late July 2012, we published the results of an investigation into a suspicious e-mail campaign targeting Bahraini activists.3 We analyzed the attachments and discovered that they contained the FinSpy spyware, FinFisher’s remote monitoring product. FinSpy captures information from an infected computer, such as passwords and Skype calls, and sends the information to a FinSpy command & control (C2) server. The attachments we analyzed sent data to a command & control server inside Bahrain.

This discovery motivated researchers to search for other command & control servers to understand how widely FinFisher might be used. Claudio Guarnieri at Rapid7 (one of the authors of this report) was the first to search for these servers. He fingerprinted the Bahrain server and looked at historical Internet scanning data to identify other servers around the world that responded to the same fingerprint. Rapid7 published this list of servers, and described their fingerprinting technique. Other groups, including CrowdStrike and SpiderLabs also analyzed and published reports on FinSpy.

Immediately after publication, the servers were apparently updated to evade detection by the Rapid7 fingerprint. We devised a different fingerprinting technique and scanned portions of the internet. We confirmed Rapid7’s results, and also found several new servers, including one inside Turkmenistan’s Ministry of Communications. We published our list of servers in late August 2012, in addition to an analysis of mobile phone versions of FinSpy. FinSpy servers were apparently updated again in October 2012 to disable this newer fingerprinting technique, although it was never publicly described.

Nevertheless, via analysis of existing samples and observation of command & control servers, we managed to enumerate yet more fingerprinting methods and continue our survey of the internet for this surveillance software. We describe the results in this post.

Civil society groups have found cause for concern in these findings, as they indicate the use of FinFisher products by countries like Turkmenistan and Bahrain with problematic records on human rights, transparency, and rule of law. In an August 2012 response to a letter from UK-based NGO Privacy International, the UK Government revealed that at some unspecified time in the past, it had examined a version of FinSpy, and communicated to Gamma that a license would be required to export that version outside of the EU. Gamma has repeatedly denied links to spyware and servers uncovered by our research, claiming that the servers detected by our scans are “not … from the FinFisher product line.”4 Gamma also claims that the spyware sent to activists in Bahrain was an “old” demonstration version of FinSpy, stolen during a product presentation.

In February 2013, Privacy International, the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, Bahrain Watch, and Reporters Without Borders filed a complaint with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), requesting that this body investigate whether Gamma violated OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises by exporting FinSpy to Bahrain. The complaint called previous Gamma statements into question, noting that at least two different versions (4.00 and 4.01) of FinSpy were found in Bahrain, and that Bahrain’s server was a FinFisher product and was likely receiving updates from Gamma. This complaint, as laid out by Privacy International states that Gamma:

  • failed to respect the internationally recognised human rights of those affected by [its] activities
  • caused and contributed to adverse human rights impacts in the course of [its] business activities
  • failed to prevent and mitigate adverse human rights impacts linked to [its] activities and products, and failed to address such impacts where they have occurred
  • failed to carry out adequate due diligence (including human rights due diligence); and
  • failed to implement a policy commitment to respect human rights.

According to recent reporting, German Federal Police appear to have plans to purchase and use the FinFisher suite of tools domestically within Germany.5 Meanwhile, findings by our group and others continue to illustrate the global proliferation of FinFisher’s products. Research continues to uncover troubling cases of FinSpy in countries with dismal human rights track records, and politically repressive regimes. Most recently, work by Bahrain Watch has confirmed the presence of a Bahraini FinFisher campaign, and further contradicted Gamma’s public statements. This post adds to the list by providing an updated list of FinSpy Command & Control servers, and describing the FinSpy malware samples in the wild which appear to have been used to target victims in Ethiopia and Vietnam.

We present these updated findings in the hopes that we will further encourage civil society groups and competent investigative bodies to continue their scrutiny of Gamma’s activities, relevant export control issues, and the issue of the global and unregulated proliferation of surveillance malware.

2. FinFisher: Updated Global Scan

(click image to enlarge)

Figure 1. Map of global FinFisher proliferation

Around October 2012, we observed that the behavior of FinSpy servers began to change. Servers stopped responding to our fingerprint, which had exploited a quirk in the distinctive FinSpy wire protocol. We believe that this indicates that Gamma either independently changed the FinSpy protocol, or was able to determine key elements of our fingerprint, although it has never been publicly revealed.

In the wake of this apparent update to FinSpy command & control servers, we devised a new fingerprint and conducted a scan of the internet for FinSpy command & control servers. This scan took roughly two months and involved sending more than 12 billion packets. Our new scan identified a total of 36 FinSpy servers, 30 of which were new and 6 of which we had found during previous scanning. The servers operated in 19 different countries. Among the FinSpy servers we found, 7 were in countries we hadn’t seen before.

New Countries

Canada, Bangladesh, India, Malaysia, Mexico, Serbia, Vietnam

In our most recent scan, 16 servers that we had previously found did not show up. We suspect that after our earlier scans were published the operators moved them. Many of these servers were shut down or relocated after the publication of previous results, but before the apparent October 2012 update. We no longer found FinSpy servers in 4 countries where previous scanning identified them (Brunei, UAE, Latvia, and Mongolia). Taken together, FinSpy servers are currently, or have been present, in 25 countries.

Australia, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Brunei, Canada, Czech Republic, Estonia, Ethiopia, Germany, India, Indonesia, Japan, Latvia, Malaysia, Mexico, Mongolia, Netherlands, Qatar, Serbia, Singapore, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, United States, Vietnam.

Importantly, we believe that our list of servers is incomplete due to the large diversity of ports used by FinSpy servers, as well as other efforts at concealment. Moreover, discovery of a FinSpy command and control server in a given country is not a sufficient indicator to conclude the use of FinFisher by that country’s law enforcement or intelligence agencies. In some cases, servers were found running on facilities provided by commercial hosting providers that could have been purchased by actors from any country.

The table below shows the FinSpy servers detected in our latest scan. We list the full IP address of servers that have been previously publicly revealed. For active servers that have not been publicly revealed, we list the first two octets only. Releasing complete IP addresses in the past has not proved useful, as the servers are quickly shut down and relocated.

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