Attackers have long used commercial products developed by legitimate companies to compromise targeted devices. These products are known as commercial spyware. Commercial spyware operations mainly target mobile platforms with zero- or one-click zero-day exploits to deliver spyware. This threat initially came to light with the leaks of HackingTeam back in 2015, but gained new notoriety with public reporting on the NSO Group, and, in the years that have followed, the landscape has exploded.
There are now numerous companies with similar offerings, like Intellexa, DSIRF, Variston IT, and the newly disclosed Quadream representing just a small subset — there are likely more that are operating covertly today.
Commercial spyware has become so notorious that international governments are taking notice and action against it, as evidenced by the Biden administration’s recent Executive Order on commercial spyware. A recent report from the United Kingdom’s National CyberSecurity Center (NCSC) highlights the accessibility of these tools “lowers the barrier to entry to state and non-state actors in obtaining capability and intelligence.” As recently as June 2023, the European Parliament’s plenary session voted on an ongoing investigation concerning the illicit usage of NSO’s Pegasus and equivalent surveillance spyware by EU member states (PEGA report). In this session, European Parliament members argued that the illicit usage of spyware has put “democracy itself at stake” and called for legislative changes and stricter regulation of the use of commercial spyware. The full press release and report can be found here.
Commercial spyware companies don't care who is targeted by their products
Commercial spyware companies advertise their products simply as a means of obtaining access and deny having any knowledge of who their customers’ targets are. This tactic is possibly a means of plausible deniability in the event that illegal targeting of individuals is traced back to their spyware. To avoid legal repercussions, these companies have headquarters in countries that do not have laws governing the export of their products or which classify the entities as IT service providers, effectively removing them from any product liability. These companies can therefore ultimately sell to whomever can pay without regard for who the intended targets are or what the impacts on the victims might be.
Although advertised as “tools” for law enforcement and government agencies strictly intended for legal use, report after report has shown commercial spyware has consistently been used against ethically questionable targets that don't fit the profile of criminals or terrorists. Such targets have repeatedly been journalists, politicians and activists who the host government perceives as competitors or existential threats. While these technologies may exist to fight terrorism and organized crime, their sale and usage must be regulated and subject to scrutiny by judicial authorities at an international level to prevent their misuse and abuse.
One such example of limited repercussions within a host state is the case where a journalist in Greece was targeted with Predator Spyware, eventually leading to the resignation of Greece’s National Intelligence Service’s director in 2022 and the subsequent ban on the use of commercial spyware in Greece. Earlier in 2022, we also saw the departure of the NSO group’s CEO from the company amid widespread public outrage over the use of their spyware by Israeli Police forces.
The untethered future of commercial spyware
Mobile platform developers such as Google and Apple have repeatedly introduced and implemented protections and mitigations in their operating systems. However, commercial spyware providers often use zero-day, zero-click exploits to compromise victims’ mobile devices and are so confident in their ability to repeatedly compromise phones without getting caught that, in some cases, they don't even deploy persistence mechanisms — a simple device reboot is enough to remove the implant from the device. However, a device reboot simply results in the commercial spyware outfit reinfecting the device using the zero-day, zero-click combination they had used during the initial compromise indicating the aggressive nature of these campaigns.
We see no indications that these commercial spyware offerings are slowing down. If anything, they are growing along with the constant availability of exploitable, unpatched/unknown vulnerabilities. Until the international community acts to regulate the technology, very little is going to change. When exposed by researchers, some of these companies just cease to exist. But in reality, they do not shut down, they just rebrand under a different name or merge with others sharing the technology they have produced. A typical example of such a case is the commercial spyware firm Cytrox, which was on the verge of disappearing, but was subsequently “rescued” and is now part of the Intellexa conglomerate.
Private and government organizations have taken steps to legally curb the use of commercial spyware, including attempts to hold them responsible for their actions in the past. Meta, formerly Facebook, is one of the first to move against commercial spyware companies by opening a lawsuit against the NSO Group for leveraging Meta-owned WhatsApp in their infection chain. The Biden administration has also taken an important step in fighting these companies with the Executive Order putting limitations on the U.S. government's ability to use commercial spyware to “discourage the improper use of commercial spyware; and encourage the development and implementation of responsible norms regarding the use of commercial spyware that are consistent with respect for the rule of law, human rights, and democratic norms and values.”
However, limited legal and legislative actions are yet to have an immediate positive effect on curbing the use of commercial spyware. Despite these steps toward limiting the operations of these spyware companies, they are likely to keep operating in any region as long as it's financially and legally feasible. Increasing scrutiny with export regulations, criminal liability and fines may be a way forward towards ensuring that their activity does not go beyond the legitimate purposes they advertise.
Cisco's actions in the commercial spyware space
Cisco has also taken steps to help limit the impacts of commercial spyware. Notably Cisco, Microsoft, and other tech companies have joined in supporting Meta's lawsuit against the NSO Group referenced above through court filings. Cisco was also a key drafter of the Cyber Mercenary Principles document adopted by the Cyber Tech Accord. The document is designed to illustrate the steps that organizations are taking to help limit the impacts of commercial spyware. These are goals set by corporations realizing the threat faced by these commercial offerings.
For almost everyone on the planet, your Apple or Android phone’s built-in security features are more than sufficient to keep you protected. However, the commercial spyware industry has proven that it is easy to compromise targets if you have access to these products and the means to use them. We've seen numerous deeply concerning reports of people being compromised and are commonly met with the news that it was a journalist or dissident. The ability of these companies to repeatedly compromise devices, regardless of patch level, makes protection difficult.
For those that believe they are being or could be targeted by commercial spyware, rebooting the device before contacting a source or switching to lockdown mode might be the only options for the foreseeable future.
If you feel that you have been targeted by commercial spyware, there are also more generic habits that should be part of your daily routine:
- Reboot your device regularly.
- Use lockdown mode if your device is an iPhone.
- Don’t click on links from dubious sources.
- Don’t accept private messages from unknown persons.
- If you have to keep a public contact, use an empty device to receive such contacts and reset it frequently.
- Keep your devices up-to-date.
If readers suspect their system(s) may have been compromised by commercial spyware or hack-for-hire groups, please consider notifying Talos’ research team at email@example.com to assist in furthering the community’s knowledge of these threats.