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India is investigating Google over alleged Android abuse

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More than 95% of the smartphones that ship in India run Android, according to industry estimates. Now the Indian antitrust watchdog is convinced that the nation should investigate whether Google is abusing the dominant position of its mobile operating system to hurt local rivals.

The Competition Commission of India (CCI), the local anti-monopoly regulator, began looking at Google’s Android business in India last year after it received a complaint from unspecified people. Last month, the regulator preliminarily found that Google had abused the dominant position of Android in the nation, and thereby ordered its investigation unit to conduct a full investigation, according to a report by Reuters, which cites unnamed sources.

In a statement to TechCrunch, a Google spokesperson said that the company looks forward to working with the CCI. “Android has enabled millions of Indians to connect to the internet by making mobile devices more affordable. We look forward to working with the Competition Commission of India to demonstrate how Android has led to more competition and innovation, not less.”

The investigation, not the first of its kind, will take about a year to conclude and could see Google executives summoned before the regulator, the news agency reported. The CCI has not publicly commented on the probe.

If found guilty, Google may be fined up to 10% of its local revenue or 300% of its net profits. Even as India has emerged as one of Google’s largest markets in recent years, the company makes a relatively tiny amount in the nation. It clocked $1.4 billion in revenue in India in the year that ended in March 2018, according to regulatory filings, compared to more than $100 billion it generated globally in a comparable time period.

The specific accusations, as well as the identity of those who filed the complaint, remain unclear.

With the launch of this investigation, India is joining the EU, which continues to look at several businesses of Google — including Android — to ensure that the company is not abusing its dominant position in the market. Earlier this year, the EU regulators concluded that Google had forced its OEM partners to prebundle a number of apps, including Google Search, Chrome browser and Google Play Store on their Android handsets.

Following the verdict, which Google has appealed, the Android maker announced it will give users more choices for browsers and search engines.

India’s regulator has previously investigated Google’s search business and Apple’s partnerships with local carriers for sale of iPhones. Apple’s iOS has tiny market share in India, where most people have annual income of less than $2,000.

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Microsoft Exchange servers worldwide hit by stealthy new backdoor

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Researchers have identified stealthy new malware that threat actors have been using for the past 15 months to backdoor Microsoft Exchange servers after they have been hacked.

Dubbed SessionManager, the malicious software poses as a legitimate module for Internet Information Services (IIS), the web server installed by default on Exchange servers. Organizations often deploy IIS modules to streamline specific processes on their web infrastructure. Researchers from security firm Kaspersky have identified 34 servers belonging to 24 organizations that have been infected with SessionManager since March 2021. As of earlier this month, Kaspersky said, 20 organizations remained infected.

Stealth, persistence, power

Malicious IIS modules offer an ideal means to deploy powerful, persistent, and stealthy backdoors. Once installed, they will respond to specifically crafted HTTP requests sent by the operator instructing the server to collect emails, add further malicious access, or use the compromised servers for clandestine purposes. To the untrained eye, the HTTP requests look unremarkable, even though they give the operator complete control over the machine.

“Such malicious modules usually expect seemingly legitimate but specifically crafted HTTP requests from their operators, trigger actions based on the operators’ hidden instructions if any, then transparently pass the request to the server for it to be processed just like any other request,” Kaspersky researcher Pierre Delcher wrote. “As a result, such modules are not easily spotted by usual monitoring practices: they do not necessarily initiate suspicious communications to external servers, receive commands through HTTP requests to a server that is specifically exposed to such processes, and their files are often placed in overlooked locations that contain a lot of other legitimate files.”

Kaspersky

Once SessionManager is deployed, operators use it to profile the infected environment further, gather passwords stored in memory, and install additional tools, including a PowerSploit-based reflective loader, Mimikat SSP, ProcDump, and a legitimate Avast memory dump tool. Kaspersky obtained multiple SessionManager variants that date back to at least March 2021. The samples show a steady evolution that has added more features with each new version. The most recent version of the malicious module includes the following:

Command name
(SM_SESSION cookie value)
Command parameters
(additional cookies)
Associated capability
GETFILE FILEPATH: path of file to be read. FILEPOS1: offset at which to start reading, from file start.

FILEPOS2: maximum number of bytes to read.

Read the content of a file on the compromised server and send it to the operator as an HTTP binary file named cool.rar.
PUTFILE FILEPATH: path of file to be written.

FILEPOS1: offset at which to start writing.

FILEPOS2: offset reference.

FILEMODE: requested file access type.

Write arbitrary content to a file on the compromised server. The data to be written in the specified file is passed within the HTTP request body.
DELETEFILE FILEPATH: path of file to be deleted. Delete a file on the compromised server.
FILESIZE FILEPATH: path of file to be measured. Get the size (in bytes) of the specified file.
CMD None. Run an arbitrary process on the compromised server. The process to run and its arguments are specified in the HTTP request body using the format: <executable path>t<arguments>. The standard output and error data from process execution are sent back as plain text to the operator in the HTTP response body.
PING None. Check for SessionManager deployment. The “Wokring OK” (sic.) message will be sent to the operator in the HTTP response body.
S5CONNECT S5HOST: hostname to connect to (exclusive with S5IP).

S5PORT: offset at which to start writing.

S5IP: IP address to connect to if no hostname is given (exclusive with S5HOST).

S5TIMEOUT: maximum delay in seconds to allow for connection.

Connect from compromised host to a specified network endpoint, using a created TCP socket. The integer identifier of the created and connected socket will be returned as the value of the S5ID cookie variable in the HTTP response, and the status of the connection will be reported in the HTTP response body.
S5WRITE S5ID: identifier of the socket to write to, as returned by S5CONNECT. Write data to the specified connected socket. The data to be written in the specified socket is passed within the HTTP request body.
S5READ S5ID: identifier of the socket to read from, as returned by S5CONNECT. Read data from the specified connected socket. The read data is sent back within the HTTP response body.
S5CLOSE S5ID: identifier of the socket to close, as returned by S5CONNECT. Terminate an existing socket connection. The status of the operation is returned as a message within the HTTP response body.

Remember ProxyLogon?

SessionManager gets installed after threat actors have exploited vulnerabilities known as ProxyLogon within Microsoft Exchange servers. Kaspersky has found it infecting NGOs, governments, militaries, and industrial organizations in Africa, South America, Asia, and Europe.

Kaspersky

Kaspersky said it has medium-to-high confidence that a previously identified threat actor that researchers call Gelsemium has been deploying SessionManager. Security firm ESET published a deep dive on the group (PDF) last year. Kaspersky’s attribution is based on the overlap of code used by the two groups and victims targeted.

Disinfecting servers that have been hit by SessionManager or similar malicious IIS modules is a complicated process. Kaspersky’s post contains indicators that organizations can use to determine if they’ve been infected and steps they should take in the event they’ve been infected.

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China lured graduate jobseekers into digital espionage

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Chinese university students have been lured to work at a secretive technology company that masked the true nature of their jobs: researching western targets for spying and translating hacked documents as part of Beijing’s industrial-scale intelligence regime.

The Financial Times has identified and contacted 140 potential translators, mostly recent graduates who have studied English at public universities in Hainan, Sichuan and Xi’an. They had responded to job adverts at Hainan Xiandun, a company that was located in the tropical southern island of Hainan.

The application process included translation tests on sensitive documents obtained from US government agencies and instructions to research individuals at Johns Hopkins University, a key intelligence target.

Hainan Xiandun is alleged by a 2021 US federal indictment to have been a cover for the Chinese hacking group APT40. Western intelligence agencies have accused APT40 of infiltrating government agencies, companies and universities across the US, Canada, Europe and the Middle East, under the orders of China’s Ministry of State Security (MSS).

The FBI sought to disrupt the activities of Hainan Xiandun last July by indicting three state security officials in Hainan province—Ding Xiaoyang, Cheng Qingmin and Zhu Yunmin—for their alleged role in establishing the company as a front for state-backed espionage. Another man mentioned in the indictment, Wu Shurong, is believed to be a hacker who helped supervise employees at Hainan Xiandun.

Western intelligence services also seek out prospective spies from universities, with applicants undergoing rigorous vetting and training before joining the likes of the CIA in the US or the UK’s GCHQ signals intelligence agency.

But Chinese graduates targeted by Hainan Xiandun appear to have been unwittingly drawn into a life of espionage. Job adverts from the company were posted on university websites for translators without further explanation of the nature of the work.

This could have life-long consequences, as individuals identified as having co-operated with the MSS through their work for Hainan Xiandun are likely to face difficulty in living and working in western countries, a key motivation for many students who study foreign languages.

The FT contacted all 140 individuals on a leaked list of candidates compiled by security officials in the region to corroborate the authenticity of the applications. Several of those contacted initially confirmed their identities, but ended phone calls after being asked about their links to Hainan Xiandun. A few discussed their experience of the hiring process.

Their applications provide insight into the tactics of APT40, known for targeting biomedical, robotics and maritime research institutions as part of wider efforts to gain knowledge of western industrial strategy and steal sensitive data.

Hacking on that scale requires a huge workforce of English speakers who can help identify hacking targets, cyber technicians who can access adversaries’ systems and intelligence officers to analyze the stolen material.

Zhang, an English language graduate who applied to Hainan Xiandun, told the FT that a recruiter had asked him to go beyond conventional translation duties by researching the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, with instructions to find out information on the institution, including the CVs of the directors on its board, the building’s architecture and details of research contracts it had struck with clients.

The APL, a big recipient of US Department of Defense research funds, is likely to be of significant intelligence interest to Beijing and the individuals who work there prime hacking targets.

The instruction document asked the job candidates to download “software to get behind the Great Firewall.” It warns that the research will involve consulting websites such as Facebook, which is banned in China and so requires a VPN, software that masks the location of the user in order to gain access.

“It was very clear that this was not a translation company,” said Zhang, who decided against continuing with his application.

Dakota Cary, an expert in Chinese cyber espionage and former security analyst at Georgetown University, said the student translators were likely to be helping with researching organizations or individuals who might prove to be fruitful sources of sensitive information.

“The fact that you’re going to have to use a VPN, that you will need to be doing your own research and you need good language skills, all says to me that these students will be identifying hacking targets,” he said.

Cary, who testified earlier this year to the US-China economic and security review commission on Beijing’s cyber capabilities, said the instruction to investigate Johns Hopkins was an indicator of the level of initiative and ability to acquire specialist knowledge that the translators were expected to demonstrate.

One security official in the region said the revelations were evidence that the MSS was using university students as a “recruitment pipeline” for its spying activities.

Antony Blinken, US secretary of state, has previously condemned the MSS for building an “ecosystem of criminal contract hackers” who engage in both state-sponsored activities and financially motivated cyber crime. Blinken added that these hackers cost governments and businesses “billions of dollars” in stolen intellectual property, ransom payments and cyber defenses.

Hainan Xiandun asked the applicants to translate a document from the US Office of Infrastructure Research and Development containing technical explanations on preventing corrosion on transport networks and infrastructure. This appeared to test prospective employees’ abilities to interpret complex scientific concepts and terminology.

“It was a very weird process,” said Cindy, an English language student from a respected Chinese university. “I applied online and then the HR person sent me a highly technical test translation.” She decided against continuing with the application.

Adam Kozy, a former FBI official who worked most recently at cyber security company CrowdStrike, said he had not heard of western intelligence enlisting university students without them being given security clearance to collect intelligence.

“The MSS do everything very informally and they like the gray areas,” he said. “It’s interesting to see that they’re relying on a young student workforce to do a lot of the dirty work that may have those knock-on consequences later in life and most likely are not fully explaining those potential risks.”

The MSS did not respond to requests for comment.

Hainan Xiandun solicited applications on university recruitment sites and appears to have a close relationship with Hainan University. The company was registered on the first floor of the university library, home to the student computer room.

One job advert posted on the university’s foreign languages department website called for applications from English-speaking female students and Communist party members. The advert has been deleted since the FT’s queries regarding this story.

Several student applicants to Hainan Xiandun had won school prizes for their language skills and others held the added distinction of holding party membership.

According to the FBI’s indictment, MSS officers “co-ordinated with staff and professors at universities in Hainan and elsewhere in China” to further their intelligence goals. Personnel at one Hainan-based university also helped support and manage Hainan Xiandun as a front company, “including through payroll, benefits and a mailing address,” the indictment reads.

While the FBI accused the university of assisting the MSS in identifying and recruiting hackers and linguists to “penetrate and steal” from computer networks, it does not mention the university’s role in commandeering students to help the cause.

In response to the FT’s findings, Michael Misumi, chief information officer at Johns Hopkins APL, said that “like many technical organizations” the APL “must respond to many cyber threats and takes appropriate measures to continuously defend itself and its systems.”

Hainan University did not respond to requests for comment.

Applicants’ names have been changed to protect their identities

© 2022 The Financial Times Ltd. All rights reserved Not to be redistributed, copied, or modified in any way.

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YouTube content creator credentials are under siege by YTStealer malware

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In online crime forums, specialization is everything. Enter YTStealer, a new piece of malware that steals authentication credentials belonging to YouTube content creators.

“What sets YTStealer aside from other stealers sold on the Dark Web market is that it is solely focused on harvesting credentials for one single service instead of grabbing everything it can get ahold of,” Joakim Kennedy, a researcher at security firm Intezer wrote in a blog post on Wednesday. “When it comes to the actual process, it is very similar to that seen in other stealers. The cookies are extracted from the browser’s database files in the user’s profile folder.”

As soon as the malware obtains a YouTube authentication cookie it opens a headless browser and connects to YouTube’s Studio page, which content creators use to manage the videos they produce. YTStealer then extracts all available information about the user account, including the account name, number of subscribers, age, and whether channels are monetized.

The malware then encrypts each data sample with a unique key and sends both to a command and control server.

The structure of the YTStealer code and the unique identifier used for each sample leads Intezer to suspect that YTStealer is being sold as a service to other threat actors. Company researchers further noticed that files used to install the malware on victim computers loaded other credential stealers, including ones called RedLine and Vidar.

Many of the files are disguised as installers for legitimate tools or software. They included fake installers for:

  • OBS Studio, a piece of an open source streaming software
  • Video editing software, including Adobe Premiere Pro, Filmora, and HitFilm Express
  • Audio applications and plugins such as Antares Auto-Tune Pro, Valhalla DSP, FabFilter Total, and Xfer Serum
  • Game modes and cheats for games such as Grand Theft Auto V, Roblox, Counter-Strike, and Call of Duty
  • Driver tools such as “Driver Booster” and “Driver Easy,” which bill themselves as a means for improving gaming computer performance
  • “Cracks” for legitimate software or services including Norton Security, Malwarebytes, Discord Nitro, Stepn, and Spotify Premium

Hardcoded into the YTStealer is the domain youbot[.]solutions. It’s not immediately clear if the domain is connected to Youbot Solutions LLC, which is registered in the New Mexico registry of corporations. Attempts to reach the company for comment weren’t successful.

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