News / Science & Technology

Saudi App Appears to Target Residents With Surveillance

Screen grab for the "Qatif Today" app from the Google Play store.
Screen grab for the "Qatif Today" app from the Google Play store.
Doug Bernard

Online researchers in Canada say they have identified malware intentionally designed to infect and spy on mobile devices in the restive Qatif region of Saudi Arabia, and they think they know who’s behind it.

Analysts with Citizen Lab, a Toronto-based privacy and security research institute, say they have evidence that an Android-based mobile news app called “Qatif Today” has been deliberately altered to turn mobile phones into surveillance devices. The authors also strongly implicate the Italy-based intelligence firm Hacking Team as being behind the malware.

The website for Hacking Team says the for-profit company provides what it calls “lawful interception technology” only to government agencies for the express purpose of conducting electronic surveillance.

The authors of the Citizen Lab report say once downloaded, the doctored “Qatif Today” application would provide near complete access to all the data on the user’s mobile phone. Additionally, the malware siphons off information about the user’s social media activity on platforms such as Facebook, Viber, Skype and WhatsApp.

“Documents we have reviewed suggest that Hacking Team refers to this kind of mobile implant as an ‘Installation Package,’ where a legitimate third party application file is bundled with the implant,” write the report’s authors.

Adding concern, the researchers also say that those controlling the malware could remotely switch on the infected phone’s microphone and cameras and to surreptitiously record the user. The report does not conclusively say who is controlling the fake app.

“We are not in a position to determine the identity of the group or individual targeted with this malware, however, we speculate that the attack may be linked to political protest in eastern Saudi Arabia,” write the Citizen Lab authors.

“This isn’t definitive evidence that the Saudi Arabian government is using this malware,” says Cynthia Wong, senior Internet researcher at Human Rights Watch. “But it raises serious questions because this app was focused on a particular city in a particular province in Saudi Arabia. The only people interested in downloading this are those interested in that particular area, which raises serious concern whether the government has purchased this particular piece of malware.”

The Shia-majority Qatif governorate, located on the Gulf near Bahrain, has been the site of ongoing protests against the government in Riyadh. Wong tells VOA that the Internet and social media have become important tools in Saudi Arabia, allowing some measure of free expression and dissent.

But in early 2014, a new set of laws was enacted in Saudi Arabia that criminalize most online dissent as an act of terrorism.

“What we’ve seen in the past few years is the government really cracking down on online activism,” said Wong. “If the government is using this kind of malware to spy on online activists, it would be part and parcel in terms of the crackdown on activism on the Internet.”

For its part, Hacking Team spokesman Eric Rabe told VOA by email that there was “no comment, of course, on client identities or location in accordance with our company policies.” But Rabe forwarded a statement from Hacking Team that reads in part:

“Hacking Team is aware of the ongoing efforts of Citizen’s Lab to attack our business by attempting to disclose confidential information, systems, and procedures that we use.  This report is only their latest effort. It is evident that the primary complaint of the authors is about repressive government, however, Citizen’s Lab has chosen to target a private business operating in full compliance with all relevant law.”

The Saudi embassy in Washington declined to respond to VOA requests for comment for this story.

You May Like

Mali's Female Basketball Players Rebound After Islamist Occupation

Islamist extremists ruled northern Mali for most of 2012, imposing strict Sharia law, and now some 18 months later, the region is slowly getting back on its feet More

Video Vietnamese Staging Chinese Product Boycott After Oil Rig Spat

Many Chinese-made products go unsold, for now, with numerous Vietnamese consumers still angry over recent dispute More

Koreas Mark 61st Anniversary of War Armistice

Muted observances on both sides of heavily-armed Demilitarized Zone that separates two decades-long enemies More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Students in Business for Themselvesi
X
Mike O'Sullivan
July 26, 2014 11:04 AM
They're only high school students, but they are making accessories for shoes, fabricating backpacks and doing product photography - all through their own businesses. It's the result of a partnership between a non-profit organization that teaches entrepreneurship and their schools. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan and Deyane Moses met the budding entrepreneurs near Los Angeles.
Video

Video Students in Business for Themselves

They're only high school students, but they are making accessories for shoes, fabricating backpacks and doing product photography - all through their own businesses. It's the result of a partnership between a non-profit organization that teaches entrepreneurship and their schools. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan and Deyane Moses met the budding entrepreneurs near Los Angeles.
Video

Video Astronauts Train in Underwater Lab

In the world’s only underwater laboratory, four U.S. astronauts train for a planned visit to an asteroid. The lab - called Aquarius- is located five kilometers off Key Largo, in southern Florida. Living in close quarters and making excursions only into the surrounding ocean, they try to simulate the daily routine of a crew that will someday travel to collect samples of a rock orbiting far away from earth. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Not Even Monks Spared From Thailand’s Junta-Backed Morality Push

With Thailand’s military government firmly in control after May’s bloodless coup, authorities are carrying out plans they say are aimed at restoring discipline, morality and patriotism to all Thais. The measures include a crackdown on illegal gambling, education reforms to promote students’ moral development, and a new 24-hour phone hotline for citizens to report misbehaving monks. Steve Sandford reports from Bangkok.
Video

Video Virtual Program Teaches Farming Skills

In a fast-changing world beset by unpredictable climate conditions, farmers cannot afford to ignore new technology. Researchers in Australia are developing an online virtual world program to share information about climate change and more sustainable farming techniques for sugar cane growers. As VOA's Zlatica Hoke reports, the idea is to create a wider support network for farmers.
Video

Video Airline Expert: Missile will Show Signature on Debris

The debris field from Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 is spread over a 21-kilometer radius in eastern Ukraine. It is expected to take investigators months to sort through the airplane pieces to learn about the missile that brought down the jetliner and who fired it. VOAs Carolyn Presutti explains how this work will be done.
Video

Video Treatment for Childhood Epilepsy Heats up Medical Marijuana Debate

In the United States, marijuana is classed as an illegal drug by the federal government. But nearly half the states have legalized it, to some degree. Proponents say some strains of marijuana might have exceptional health benefits, for treating pain or inflammation in chronic conditions such as cancer, multiple sclerosis and epilepsy. Shelley Schlender reports on a strain of medical marijuana developed in Colorado that is reputed to reduce seizures in childhood epilepsy
Video

Video Airbus Adds Metal 3D Printed Parts to New Jets

By the end of this year, European aircraft manufacturing consortium Airbus plans to deliver the first of its new, extra-wide-body passenger jets, the A350-XWB. Among other technological innovations, the new plane will also incorporate metal parts made in a 3-D printer. VOA's George Putic has more.
Video

Video AIDS Conference Welcomes Exciting Developments in HIV Treatment, Prevention

Significant strides have been made in recent years toward the treatment and prevention of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. This year, at the International AIDS Conference, the AIDS community welcomed progress on a new pill that may prevent transmission of the deadly virus. VOA’s Anita Powell reports from Melbourne, Australia.
Video

Video IAEA: Iran Turns its Enriched Uranium Into Less Harmful Form

Iran has converted its stockpiles of enriched uranium into a less dangerous form that is more difficult to use for nuclear weapons, according to the United Nations’ Atomic Energy Agency. The move complies with an interim deal reached with Western powers on Iran's nuclear program last year, in exchange for easing of sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.

AppleAndroid