A zero-click cyber attack solely relies on software and hardware flaws, bypassing any human factor to infect a device and take control over its data. It is almost impossible to discover the attack and know that the device is hacked unless someone on your side is closely monitoring your network traffic data.
At Kaspersky, security analysts used their SIEM solution KUMA to monitor their corporate WiFi network traffic and discovered this mysterious attack. They took necessary actions to investigate it and even went a step further to dive right into the action and uncover the entire attack chain.
A few months ago, Kaspersky shared their findings about this attack on iOS devices. They shared how these zero-click vulnerabilities were being exploited by the attackers and called this attack ‘Operation Triangulation’.
A zero-click exploit in the network
Kaspersky detected a zero-click attack on the iPhones of their colleagues while monitoring their corporate WiFi network traffic. They managed to get detailed information on all the stages of the attack by simply identifying a pattern in the domain names flowing through their network. Although the attackers were quite experienced, their mistakes helped Kaspersky detect critical vulnerabilities in all iOS devices.
These previously unsuspected domains had a similar name-style which consisted of two names and ended with ‘.com’, such as ‘backuprabbit.com’ and ‘cloudsponcer.com’. They were used in pairs, one for an exportation process and the other served as a command and control server. These domains showed high outbound traffic, they were registered with NameCheap and protected with Cloudflare.
The network pattern
Each time a connection to these suspicious domains was made, it was preceded by an iMessage connection which indicated these domains are being accessed by iOS devices. It was observed that the devices connected to these domains, downloaded attachments, performed a few requests to a first level domain which was an exploitation framework server, then made regular connections with the second level domain which was a command and control server controlled by the attackers.
Getting more information
To get more information about the attack all the infected devices were collected and backed up after carefully informing the device owners. Although the attackers had managed to clean their artefacts, the backed up data was used to perform digital forensic procedures and find traces of the attacks. This helped Kaspersky to figure out how the infection might be taking place.
The attacker’s mistakes
The attackers deleted all the attachment files and exploits but did not delete the modified SMS attachment folder. That folder had no files left inside it. The attackers removed evidence from other databases as well, like the ‘SMS.db’ database, however another database called ‘datausage.sqlite’ was not sanitised.
The ‘datausage.sqlite’ database is the most important database when it comes to iOS forensics as its contents can be used to track applications and network usage. Upon examination of this database, a process logged as ‘BackupAgent’ was found to be making network connections at the same time the device was making connections to the suspicious domains.
The indicator of compromise
‘BackupAgent’ stood out in this scenario because although it is a legitimate binary, it has been deprecated since iOS4 and it should not have been making any network connections. This identified the ‘BackupAgent’ process as the first solid indicator of compromise in Operation Triangulation. The indicator is termed as- ‘Data usage by process BackupAgent’, and was used to determine if any specific device was infected.
Taking it a step ahead
The team at Kaspersky successfully identified the indicator of compromise and determined which devices were infected, but as the attackers were experienced enough to delete their payloads, they decided to set a trap and perform a man-in-the-middle attack. When they did, the attackers were unable to detect it.
The man-in the-middle attack
Kaspersky prepared a server with ‘WireGuard’ and ‘mitmproxy’. They installed root certificates on devices that could be used as targets for the attackers and routed all the network traffic to that server. They also developed a ‘Telegram’ bot to notify them about new infections as they decrypted the network traffic.
Setting up a bot proved to be an effective way of real time monitoring while modifying all the network packets on-the-fly with ‘mitmproxy’, this gave them unlimited power! Their trap was successful in capturing a payload sent by the attackers and it was analysed in detail.
The name was in the payload
The team at Kaspersky started cracking various layers of asymmetric cryptography with regular expressions. They patched the stages one-by-one on the fly to move the logic from each stage to ‘mitmproxy’ and finally implemented a 400 line ‘mitmproxy’ add-on. This add-on decrypted all the validators, exploits, spyware and additional modules.
It is remarkable how Kaspersky detected the attack and identified multiple vulnerabilities, set up a trap to capture a payload and decrypted it completely. They shared all their findings with the device manufacturer and Apple responded by sending out a security patch update addressing four zero-day vulnerabilities.
A zero-click vulnerability
Traditionally any spyware relies on the user to to click on a compromised link or file to initiate the infection. However a zero-click vulnerability is a specific flaw in the device software or hardware that the attacker can use to infect the device without the need for a click or tap from the user.
The vulnerabilities identified
- Tricky Font Flaw (CVE-2023-41990): A clandestine method involving the manipulation of font rendering on iPhones, akin to a secret code deciphered by the attackers.Apple swiftly addressed this vulnerability in versions iOS 15.7.8 and iOS 16.3.
- Kernel Trick (CVE-2023-32434): Exploiting a hidden language understood only by the iPhone's core, the attackers successfully compromised the kernel's integrity.Apple responded with fixes implemented in iOS 15.7.7, iOS 15.8, and iOS 16.5.1.
- Web Sneakiness (CVE-2023-32435): Leveraging a clever ploy in the interpretation of web content by iPhones, the attackers manipulated the device's behaviour.Apple addressed this vulnerability in iOS 15.7.7 and iOS 16.5.1.
- Kernel Key (CVE-2023-38606): The pinnacle of the operation, the attackers discovered a covert method to tamper with the iPhone's core, the kernel.Apple responded with a fix introduced in iOS 16.6, thwarting the intrusion into the most secure facets of the iPhone
Still, how these attackers were able to find this critical vulnerability in a device which stands out for it’s security features is still unknown.
Zero-click attacks are a real threat, but you can defend yourself. Being aware of the risks and taking proactive steps can significantly reduce vulnerability. Regularly installing the latest updates for your operating system, apps, and firmware helps patch vulnerabilities before attackers can exploit them.
- Keep your software updated as they contain crucial security patches that plug vulnerabilities before attackers can exploit them.
- Use security software to actively scan for suspicious activity and malicious code, acting as a first line of defence against zero-click intrusions.
- Be cautious with unsolicited messages if the offer seems too good to be true or the link appears suspicious as it can contain malware that can infect your device.
- Disable automatic previews as it can potentially trigger malicious code hidden within the content.
- Be mindful of what you install and avoid unverified apps and pirated software, as they can be Trojan horses laden with malware.
- Stay informed about the latest threats and updates by following reliable news sources and security blogs to stay ahead of the curve, recognize potential zero-click scams and adjust your behaviour accordingly.
Check out our (advisory report)[add report link] to get in depth information.
Operation Triangulation stands as a testament to the continuous cat-and-mouse game between cybercriminals and tech giants. While the covert spy mission showcased the vulnerabilities present in earlier iPhone versions, Apple's prompt response underscores the commitment to user security. As the digital landscape evolves, vigilance, timely updates, and collaborative efforts remain essential in safeguarding against unforeseen cyber threats.
- Operation Triangulation: iOS devices targeted with previously unknown malware | Securelist, 1 June, 2023
- Operation Triangulation: The last (hardware) mystery | Securelist, 27 December, 2023.
- 37C3 - Operation Triangulation: What You Get When Attack iPhones of Researchers (youtube.com), 29 December,2023