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

Karzai's Legacy: Missed Opportunities?

Afghanistan's president leaves behind a much different nation than the one he inherited, yet his legacy from 13 years in power is getting mixed reviews More

Video Secret Service Chief Under Fire for White House Security Breach

Julia Pierson faces tough questions from lawmakers after recent intrusion at White House, says: 'It is clear that our security plan was not executed properly' More

Frustrated, Liberian Students Want Ebola Fight Role

Thousands have volunteered to go to counties, rural villages to talk to people in their language about deadly virus 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.
Malaysia Struggles to Stop People Joining Jihadi
X
Mahi Ramakrishnan
September 30, 2014 2:16 PM
Malaysian authorities say militant groups like the so-called "Islamic State" have used social media to entice at least three dozen Malaysian Muslims to fight in what they call "jihad" in Syria and Iraq. As Mahi Ramkrishnan reports from Kuala Lumpur, counterterrorism police are deeply worried about what could happen when these militants return home.
Video

Video Malaysia Struggles to Stop People Joining Jihad

Malaysian authorities say militant groups like the so-called "Islamic State" have used social media to entice at least three dozen Malaysian Muslims to fight in what they call "jihad" in Syria and Iraq. As Mahi Ramkrishnan reports from Kuala Lumpur, counterterrorism police are deeply worried about what could happen when these militants return home.
Video

Video Could US Have Done More to Stop Rise of Islamic State?

President Obama says airstrikes against Islamic State militants in Syria will likely continue for some time because, in his words, "there is a cancer that has grown for too long." So what if President Obama had acted sooner in Syria to arm more-moderate opponents of both the Islamic State and the Syrian government? VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports from the United Nations.
Video

Video Treasure Hunters Seek 'Hidden Treasure' in Central Kenya

Could a cave in a small village in central Kenya be the site of buried treasure? A rumor of riches, left behind by colonialists, has some residents dreaming of wealth, while others see it as a dangerous hoax. VOA's Gabe Joselow has the story.
Video

Video Iran's Rouhani Skeptical on Syria Strikes

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani expressed skepticism Friday that U.S.-led airstrikes in Iraq and Syria could crush Islamic State militants. From New York, VOA’s Margaret Besheer reports the president was also hopeful that questions about Iran’s nuclear program could be resolved soon.
Video

Video US House Speaker: Congress Should Debate Authorization Against IS

As wave after wave of U.S. airstrikes target Islamic State militants, the speaker of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives says he would be willing to call Congress back into session to debate a formal, broad authorization for the use of military force. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports from Washington, where legislators left town 10 days ago for a seven-week recess.
Video

Video Ebola Patients Find No Treatment at Sierra Leone Holding Center

At a holding facility in Makeni, central Sierra Leone, dozens of sick people sit on the floor in an empty university building. They wait in filthy conditions. It's a 16-hour drive by ambulance to Kailahun Ebola treatment center. Adam Bailes was there and reports on what he says are some of the worst situations he has seen since the beginning of this Ebola outbreak. And he says it appears case numbers may already be far worse than authorities acknowledge.
Video

Video Identifying Bodies Found in Texas Border Region

Thousands of immigrants have died after crossing the border from Mexico into remote areas of the southwestern United States in recent years. Local officials in south Texas alone have found hundreds of unidentified bodies and buried them in mass graves in local cemeteries. Now an anthropologist and her students at Baylor University have been exhuming bodies and looking for clues to identify them. VOA’s Greg Flakus has more from Waco, Texas.
Video

Video Ebola Robs Liberians of Chance to Say Good-Bye to Loved Ones

In Liberia, where Ebola has killed more than 1,500 people, authorities have worked hard to convince people to allow specialized burial teams to take away dead bodies. But these safety measures, while necessary, make it hard for people to say good bye to their loved ones. VOA's Anne Look reports on the tragedy from Liberia.
Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.

AppleAndroid