Modi Government Planted Spyware in Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan's Smartphone

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has been the target of the Modi government's cyber attacks, according to a recently released Project Pegasus report.  The Indian government has neither confirmed nor denied the report.  The focus of the report is the use of the Israeli-made spyware by about  a dozen governments to target politicians, journalists and activists. The users of the Pegasus software include governments of  Bahrain, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, India, Mexico, Hungary, Azerbaijan, Togo and Rwanda.    

This is not the first time that Pakistan has figured prominently as India's favorite target for cyber hacks. Last year, a report in The Sunday Guardian of India said: "Mobile phones of around 30 Pakistani government servants, who include serving army generals, officials attached with the ISI and senior bureaucrats, were hacked into by using Pegasus spying software during April and May 2019". 

In addition to the use of spyware, the Indian government has been engaged in a massive, long-running disinformation campaign targeting Pakistan. EU Disinfo Lab, an NGO that specializes in disinformation campaigns, has found that India is carrying out a massive 15-year-long disinformation campaign to hurt Pakistan. The key objective of the Indian campaign as reported in "Indian Chronicles" is as follows: "The creation of fake media in Brussels, Geneva and across the world and/or the repackaging and dissemination via ANI and obscure local media networks – at least in 97 countries – to multiply the repetition of online negative content about countries in conflict with India, in particular Pakistan".  After the disclosure of India's anti-Pakistan propaganda campaign, Washington-based US analyst Michael Kugelman tweeted: "The scale and duration of the EU/UN-centered Indian disinformation campaign exposed by @DisinfoEU is staggering. Imagine how the world would be reacting if this were, say, a Russian or Chinese operation".  

Pegasus Spyware Explained. Source: The Guardian 

Pegasus is spying software made by NSO Group, an Israeli company whose exports are regulated and controlled by the Israeli government. It uses several different messaging apps to plant itself in mobile phones. Last year, Apple issued a warning to its customers of a "zero-click" version of the Pegasus software. It does not require the phone user to click on any links or messages for the spyware to take control of the device. Once installed, it can read and export any information or extract any file from SMS messages, address books, call history, calendars, emails and internet browsing histories.   

The Israeli spyware will likely inspire other software developers elsewhere to copy and improve it, contributing to a proliferation of such hacking and spying tools around the world. The governments and officials who use it to target others will eventually become targets themselves, unless the nations of the world agree to some norms of internationally accepted cyber behavior. It's high time to think about it. 

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Comment by Riaz Haq on August 15, 2021 at 1:04pm

Close the N.S.A.’s Back Doors

In 2006, a federal agency, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, helped build an international encryption system to help countries and industries fend off computer hacking and theft. Unbeknown to the many users of the system, a different government arm, the National Security Agency, secretly inserted a “back door” into the system that allowed federal spies to crack open any data that was encoded using its technology.

Documents leaked by Edward Snowden, the former N.S.A. contractor, make clear that the agency has never met an encryption system that it has not tried to penetrate. And it frequently tries to take the easy way out. Because modern cryptography can be so hard to break, even using the brute force of the agency’s powerful supercomputers, the agency prefers to collaborate with big software companies and cipher authors, getting hidden access built right into their systems.

The New York Times, The Guardian and ProPublica recently reported that the agency now has access to the codes that protect commerce and banking systems, trade secrets and medical records, and everyone’s e-mail and Internet chat messages, including virtual private networks. In some cases, the agency pressured companies to give it access; as The Guardian reported earlier this year, Microsoft provided access to Hotmail,, SkyDrive and Skype. According to some of the Snowden documents given to Der Spiegel, the N.S.A. also has access to the encryption protecting data on iPhones, Android and BlackBerry phones.

These back doors and special access routes are a terrible idea, another example of the intelligence community’s overreach. Companies and individuals are increasingly putting their most confidential data on cloud storage services, and need to rely on assurances their data will be secure. Knowing that encryption has been deliberately weakened will undermine confidence in these systems and interfere with commerce.

The back doors also strip away the expectations of privacy that individuals, businesses and governments have in ordinary communications. If back doors are built into systems by the N.S.A., who is to say that other countries’ spy agencies — or hackers, pirates and terrorists — won’t discover and exploit them?

The government can get a warrant and break into the communications or data of any individual or company suspected of breaking the law. But crippling everyone’s ability to use encryption is going too far, just as the N.S.A. has exceeded its boundaries in collecting everyone’s phone records rather than limiting its focus to actual suspects.

Representative Rush Holt, Democrat of New Jersey, has introduced a bill that would, among other provisions, bar the government from requiring software makers to insert built-in ways to bypass encryption. It deserves full Congressional support. In the meantime, several Internet companies, including Google and Facebook, are building encryption systems that will be much more difficult for the N.S.A. to penetrate, forced to assure their customers that they are not a secret partner with the dark side of their own government.

Comment by Riaz Haq on August 15, 2021 at 1:16pm

NSA’s Own Hardware Backdoors May Still Be a “Problem from Hell”
Revelations that the NSA has compromised hardware for surveillance highlights the vulnerability of computer systems to such attacks.

In 2011, General Michael Hayden, who had earlier been director of both the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency, described the idea of computer hardware with hidden “backdoors” planted by an enemy as “the problem from hell.” ...

That revelation particularly concerned security experts because Hayden’s assessment is widely held to be true. Compromised hardware is difficult, and often impossible, to detect. Hardware can do things such as access data in ways invisible to the software on a computer, even security software. The possibility that computer hardware in use around the world might be littered with NSA backdoors raises the prospect that other nations’ agencies are doing the same thing, or that groups other than the NSA might find and exploit the NSA’s backdoors. Critics of the NSA say the untraceable nature of hardware flaws, and the potential for building them into many systems, also increases the risk that intelligence agencies that place them will be tempted to exceed legal restrictions on surveillance.

“Hardware is like a public good because everybody has to rely on it,” says Simha Sethumadhavan, an associate professor at Columbia University who researches ways to detect backdoors in computer chips. “If hardware is compromised in some way, you lose security in a very fundamental way.”

The Times report says, however, that the NSA inserted backdoors into some encryption chips that businesses and governments use to secure their data, and that the agency worked with an unnamed U.S. manufacturer to add backdoors to computer hardware about to be shipped to an overseas target.

“There has always been a lot of speculation and hinting about hardware being backdoored,” says Steve Weis, CTO and cofounder of PrivateCore, a startup whose software for cloud servers can offer protection against some kinds of malicious hardware. “This builds the case for that being right.” Weis believes that many companies in the U.S. and elsewhere will now think again about where their hardware comes from, and who has access to it. But scoping out potential problems is not straightforward for many companies, which now put data, software, and hardware in third-party locations to be run by cloud-hosting providers.

PrivateCore’s software for servers powering cloud services offers some protection against malicious hardware by encrypting data in a system’s RAM, or short-term memory. Data there is not usually encrypted, making RAM a good place for bad hardware attached to a system to covertly copy data and send it back to an attacker.

Weis says that in internal tests his technology defeated hardware attached to a server that attempted to copy data and send it out over the Internet, and that these results have been validated by rigorous tests commissioned from an outside security firm. However, the protection has its limits. “The one component we trust is an Intel processor,” says Weis. “We can’t really get around that today.”

Compromised chips are the most covert of backdoors, says Columbia’s Sethumadhavan. There is essentially no way for the buyer of a completed chip to check that it doesn’t have a backdoor, he says, and there are a multitude of ways that a design can be compromised.

“Making a chip is a global process with hundreds of steps and many different companies involved,” says Sethumadhavan. “Each and every step in the process can be compromised.”

Chipmakers usually buy third-party IP blocks to integrate into a final design. Slipping extra circuits into one of those outside designs would be the easiest way to backdoor a chip, says Sethumadhavan, because tools don’t exist to screen for them.

Comment by Riaz Haq on August 20, 2021 at 5:12pm

Big #Tech Thought It Had A Billion Users In The Bag. Long viewed as the world’s biggest market for “the next billion users,” #India is fast becoming #SiliconValley’s biggest headache under #Modi's #Hindutva rule. #BJP #SocialMedia via @PranavDixit

When he tweeted a screenshot of the email to his more than 200,000 followers, he wrote “Hail the Modi government!” in Hindi, and almost immediately, the Indian internet exploded. The move to silence him was seen by many as yet another step by India’s increasingly authoritarian government to clamp down on dissent.

For months, the country’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, led by Modi, a nationalist autocrat accused of reshaping India’s secular ethos into a Hindu state, had been hard at work trying to quell an upswell of criticism on social media after a deadly second wave of the pandemic killed thousands and protests from millions of farmers against new agricultural laws rocked the nation. But it wasn’t until the last week of May that things came to a head.

From May 26, India’s government armed itself with policies that empowered it to crack down on virtually all major digital platforms  —  social media companies like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram, messaging apps like WhatsApp, streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime, and news websites.

Among the new rules, which were first proposed in February, was one that requires social media platforms and streaming services to hire additional staff to address “grievances” filed by Indians offended by certain content and to employ full-time officers to liaise with law enforcement agencies around the clock. Others required news websites to submit monthly compliance reports and to agree to moderate or remove stories, podcasts, and videos flagged by a government committee. Another mandates that in certain circumstances messaging apps like WhatsApp must allow the government to track who texted whom, effectively breaking encryption.

The immediate consequences for not complying with these rules can be severe  —  companies can be slapped with heavy fines, local staffers can be jailed. And the broader consequences could be worse: losing protection from being held liable for content that people post, which could open companies up to all kinds of lawsuits.

If a streaming platform doesn’t respond or give an explanation that satisfies the complainant, they can appeal to the federal government, which can ultimately compel the platform to censor, edit, or take down the content in question.

It’s a sea change for Silicon Valley.

Years ago, seeing a quick path to exponential growth in India’s millions, the US tech industry rushed in, hired thousands of people, poured in billions of dollars, and became inextricably intertwined with the story of a modern, ascendant nation. But as muscular nationalism coursed ever faster through India’s veins, criticism of the powerful became increasingly difficult. Journalists were jailed, activists imprisoned, and the internet, dominated almost entirely by American social media platforms and streaming companies and one of the last remaining spaces for dissent, is now in the crosshairs.

Tech companies thought they had a billion users in the bag. But the new rules mean they might be forced to make a choice between standing up for democratic values and the rights of their users, and continuing to operate in a market crucial to growth and market dominance.

“The new rules were a jolt,” Mishi Choudhary, a technology and policy lawyer based in New York, told BuzzFeed News.

“Suddenly, they turned a wide open internet into one of the most intrusively regulated states and took it in an undemocratic direction.”

Comment by Riaz Haq on Saturday

#US Company Fears Its Windows Hacks Helped #India Spy On #China & #Pakistan. #American company’s #tech was abused by #Indian govt, amidst warnings Americans are contributing to a #spyware industry already under fire for being out of control.
via @forbes

Little known outside of the cybersecurity and intelligence worlds, over the last ten years, Exodus has made a name for itself with a Time magazine cover story and the leak of a tool that law enforcement used to hack the anonymizing browser Tor to ensnare child predators. It also claims partnerships with the Defense Department’s research agency Darpa and major tech firms like Cisco and Fortinet, a $2.6 billion (2020 sales) cybersecurity outfit. “They’re significant because the size of the market is relatively small, and the skill set required [to find zero days] is in possession of just a few thousand people worldwide at any given time,” says Katie Moussouris, founder of Luta Security and creator of Microsoft’s bug bounty program to reward hackers for vulnerability disclosures.

Exodus, when asked by Five Eyes countries (an alliance of intelligence-sharing countries that includes the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) or their allies, will provide both information on a zero-day vulnerability and the software required to exploit it. But its main product is akin to a Facebook news feed of software vulnerabilities, sans exploits, for up to $250,000 a year. It’s marketed primarily as a tool for defenders, but customers can do what they want with the information on those Exodus zero days—ones that typically cover the most popular operating systems, from Windows to Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS.

That feed is what India bought and likely weaponized, says 37-year-old Exodus CEO and cofounder Logan Brown. He tells Forbes that, after an investigation, he believes India handpicked one of the Windows vulnerabilities from the feed—allowing deep access to Microsoft’s operating system—and Indian government personnel or a contractor adapted it for malicious means. India was subsequently cut off from buying new zero-day research from his company in April, says Brown, and it has worked with Microsoft to patch the vulnerabilities. The Indian use of his company’s research was beyond the pale, though Exodus doesn’t limit what customers do with its findings, Brown says, adding, “You can use it offensively if you want, but not if you’re going to be . . . shotgun blasting Pakistan and China. I don't want any part of that.” (The Indian embassy in London hadn’t responded to requests for comment.)

The company also looked at a second vulnerability Kaspersky had attributed to Moses, another flaw that allowed a hacker to get higher privileges on a Windows computer. It was not linked to any particular espionage campaign, but Brown confirms it was one of his company’s, adding that it would “make sense” that India or one of its contractors had weaponized that vulnerability, too.

Brown is also now exploring whether or not its code has been leaked or abused by others. Beyond the two zero days already abused, according to Kaspersky, “at least six vulnerabilities” made by Moses have made it out “into the wild” in the last two years. Also according to Kaspersky, another hacking crew known as DarkHotel—believed by some cybersecurity researchers to be sponsored by South Korea—has used Moses’ zero days. South Korea is not a customer of Exodus. “We are pretty sure India leaked some of our research,” Brown says. “We cut them off and haven’t heard anything since then . . . so the assumption is that we were correct.”


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