We’ve talked quite a bit about spyware recently, with very good reason. Recently, concerns have grown regarding the rapid growth of commercial spyware tools, and the way in which they are being used against their intended victims.

This Need to Know article talk about the broader effects of spyware becoming more commercialized, how it is being used, and the differences between commercial spyware and digital extortion.

What is commercial spyware, and why is it a growing trend?

In general terms, spyware is software that can be installed on a device and used to monitor activity and/or capture potentially sensitive data. The term has been around since the 1990s, and the first spyware to be identified was developed by criminals to steal passwords or financial information from devices.  Spyware can even be used to track the device's physical location and record from the camera or microphone.

The opportunities for governments and law enforcement to use spyware as part of legal investigations led to the development of commercial spyware.  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.

Commercial spyware can be seen as having legitimate reasons to exist, especially in instances of crime and terrorism (as long as it is highly regulated). The problem is that there isn’t a universal or global way in which these companies are being regulated.

As such, we’ve seen a growing number of reports of victims who are targeted with commercial spyware. These victims are not criminals or terrorists, but instead, they are associated with activism. For example, there have been reports of journalists who report on human rights abuses, and activists shining a light on oppressive regimes, who have been targeted and compromised with this tooling.

Problems also arise when organizations turn a blind eye to the usage of commercial spyware.

A recent report from the United Kingdom’s National CyberSecurity Center (NCSC) highlights how the accessibility of these tools “lowers the barrier to entry to state and non-state actors in obtaining capability and intelligence.” The United States government also threatened to step in when it looked like a U.S. company was going to purchase NSO Group, an infamous Israeli maker of the Pegasus spyware.

What ways can you protect yourself if you might be a target of commercial spyware?

As the victims of commercial spyware are highly targeted individuals, the sobering truth is that some attackers have the means to be able to spend six figures to compromise a single target. It is therefore likely that they will try many things to compromise your mobile phone, including using zero-day attacks or unknown vulnerabilities.

That is very concerning to us, however, there are a couple of things that end users can look out for:

Although zero-click exploits do exist, they're not very common. Most of the time, unsolicited messages from various people are the first entry point. So, if you get a bunch of messages from strangers, don't click on the links, and don’t click on any attachments.

Additionally, something as simple as rebooting your phone can help clear the spyware from your device. This is because commercial spyware companies typically do not build persistence into their spyware.

If you are talking to someone who may be a target of commercial spyware (i.e., human rights journalists, activists, dissidents and lawyers) it’s a good idea to reboot your phone before you talk to them. It is entirely possible that these threat actors will go as far as compromising close contacts of their targets.

Notable example of commercial spyware

Talos provided a highly informative article on the PREDATOR commercial spyware, which has been around since 2019.

PREDATOR is intended to work with another spyware component called “ALIEN” (it’s not “Alien vs. Predator” this time; they’re working together). They work to bypass traditional security barriers on the Android operating system and provide a variety of information stealing, surveillance and remote access capabilities.

The differences between commercial spyware and digital extortion attacks

You may have received an email something like, “We know you’ve visited this adult website. We filmed you watching some videos. Now we’re going to send all your friends and family that footage unless you pay us in bitcoins.”

These are typically digital extortion attacks, not actual spyware. Attackers send these emails to multiple accounts, hoping that someone will believe the story, and pay up.

As we’ve talked about, commercial spyware is highly targeted. The customers of these commercial spyware organizations know who their victim(s) are. In digital extortion attacks, cyber criminals generally don’t know who their victims are, but they’re hoping as many people as possible believe the story, and pay up.

They will usually have found your email address via a data breach of a third party. If you receive such an email, just delete it and don’t give it a second thought. The email you received will be one of many thousands.

What is Cisco doing to take action against the growth of commercial spyware?

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 acknowledges the threat realized by these commercial offerings and outlines the steps that organizations are taking to help limit the impacts of commercial spyware.

Learn more

Researchers at Cisco Talos recently wrote an ‘On the Radar’ article about the growth of spyware-based intelligence providers, without legal or ethical supervision. The article also looks to the untethered future of commercial spyware and contains advice about what to do if you feel you have been targeted with spyware - especially if you have a higher risk profile (i.e., journalists and dissidents).

Also check out this episode of the Talos Takes podcast, where Asheer Malhotra talks to Jon Munshaw about the dangers of spyware and mercenary groups.