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Apple revokes certification of spyware app ‘Hermit’ that targeted iPhones in Italy, Kazakhstan: report

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Apple has revoked certificates for ‘Hermit’ spyware which was used to target iPhones and Android devices in Italy and Kazakhstan, according to a report. The prevalence of Hermit spyware was first reported by cybersecurity group Lookout, and later Google’s Threat Analysis Group (TAG) published a report as well.

TAG’s analysis showed both Android and iOS devices were targeted using Hermit,

which has been developed by an Italian vendor called RCS Lab. Now, Apple has said revoked all “known accounts and certificates associated with the spyware”.

More specifically, the attackers send a text message with a malicious link tricking and convincing victims to download and install the app. While Android lets any user easily install apps from outside the App Store, the process on iOS is a bit more complex – but still not impossible.

Apple offers special certificates

Since Apple offers special certificates for companies to distribute enterprise apps to their employees outside of the App Store, RCS distributed its fake app to iOS users as an enterprise app. The spyware was masquerading as a legitimate telecom or messaging app. These apps run under the same sandbox rules as App Store apps, so they can’t access internal system files or user data without permission.

However, since enterprise apps are not reviewed by Apple, it’s easier for them to take advantage of exploits found in iOS. Once spyware is installed on the victim’s device, it can capture audio from the microphone, redirect phone calls, collect photos, messages, emails, and even the current location of the device.

What is a hermit?

The spyware was first brought to light by Lookout Threat Lab researchers. They found a series of “enterprise-level Android surveillance or spyware apps” that the Kazakhstan government was using within its borders. According to the Lookout blog, “Hermit was likely developed by Italian spyware vendor RCS Lab SpA and Tykelab Srl, a communications solutions company.” The latter was used as a front to appear legitimate for the entire spyware process.

According to Lookout, Hermit was also made public by Italian authorities in 2019.

Hermit was able to exploit a device and then “record audio, make and forward phone calls, as well as collect data such as call logs, contacts, photos, device location, and SMS messages,” the blog adds. This is similar to what other high-end spyware like Pegasus has been able to do.

Lookout said the spyware was likely distributed via “SMS messages pretending to be from a legitimate source.”

According to Google, once mobile connectivity was disabled, the attackers would send an SMS asking them to install an app to recover this. “We believe this is the reason why most of the applications masqueraded as mobile carrier applications. When ISP involvement is not possible, applications are masqueraded as messaging applications,” the post said.

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