Apple Targeted as Malware Infects China Mobile Apps

Apple Targeted as Malware Infects China Mobile Apps
WeChat, Didi Kuaidi among dozens hit; breach of iOS platform is called unusual

By JOSH CHIN Updated Sept. 20, 2015 8:18 p.m. ET

BEIJING—Some of the most popular Chinese names in Apple Inc.’s App Store were found to be infected with malicious software in what is being described as a first-of-its-kind security breach, exposing a rare vulnerability in Apple’s mobile platform, according to multiple researchers.

The applications were infected after software developers were lured into using an unauthorized and compromised version of Apple’s developer tool kit, according to researchers at Alibaba Mobile Security, a mobile antivirus division of Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.

The list of recently compromised iPhone and iPad apps includes Tencent Holdings Ltd.’s popular mobile chat app WeChat, Uber-like car-hailing app Didi Kuaidi, and a Spotify-like music app from Internet portal NetEase Inc.

The attack affected more than three dozen apps, according to U.S.-based cybersecurity firm Palo Alto Networks Inc.

The infected apps can transmit information about a user’s device, prompt fake alerts that could be used to steal passwords to Apple’s iCloud service, and read and write information on the user’s clipboard, according to researchers.

Apple said in a late Sunday statement that it had taken steps to address the problem. “To protect our customers, we’ve removed the apps from the App Store that we know have been created with this counterfeit software and we are working with the developers to make sure they’re using the proper version of Xcode to rebuild their apps,” the statement said.

In separate statements posted to social media over the weekend, Tencent, Didi Kuaidi Joint Co. and NetEase said their applications had been compromised but said no sensitive customer information had been lost.

“At present, we haven’t discovered any loss of user information or assets as a result of this [breach], though the WeChat team will continue to monitor and do tests,” Tencent said in a note posted to the Sina Weibo microblogging service late Friday. A new, clean update of the WeChat app had been uploaded to the app store, it said.

‘We believe XcodeGhost is a very harmful and dangerous malware that has bypassed Apple’s code review and made unprecedented attacks on the iOS ecosystem’
—Palo Alto Networks security researcher Claud Xiao

It is unusual for malware to spread through Apple’s App Store, which typically subjects apps to stringent reviews. In a blog post Thursday, Palo Alto Networks said the attack was the first of its type directed at Apple’s iOS mobile operating system. Chinese anticensorship activist group called it “the most widespread and significant spread of malware” in the app store’s history.

Asked if it was possible the Chinese government was involved, Palo Alto Networks said it didn’t yet have enough information to determine who was behind the attack.

Other apps found infected with the malware include those belonging to state-run mobile carrier China Unicom, and 12306, the country’s official train-booking website, researchers said. China Unicom and China’s railway bureau didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment Sunday.

It wasn’t clear Sunday how the infected apps made it past Apple’s screening process, or whether the breach had resulted in any user information being stolen, though researchers said millions of devices could have been exposed based on the popularity of the apps in question.

WeChat has more than 500 million active users, according to Tencent. It isn’t clear how many use devices from Apple, which accounts for about 15% of China’s smartphone market, according to researcher IDC.

The hack exploited Chinese developers’ impatience, according to Palo Alto Networks. To write apps for Apple devices, developers have to use a tool kit called Xcode, but downloading the official version from Apple’s website can take a long time in China.

The hackers posted their infected version on a Chinese server, advertising faster downloads, the researchers said. Any app created or altered using the bogus Xcode would then become infected with the malware, they said.

The infected Xcode was hosted on Baidu Pan, a cloud service offered by Chinese search company Baidu Inc., said multiple security researchers.

Baidu removed the file shortly after being notified of its existence, Baidu spokesman Kaiser Kuo said Sunday.

The malware has been dubbed XcodeGhost by Alibaba Mobile Security researchers, who were the first to document it extensively in a series of social-media posts starting Thursday.

Even if the hackers didn’t use the malware to steal anything, Palo Alto Networks warned it still represented a threat to the popular operating system. Security researcher Claud Xiao wrote on the firm’s website Friday that criminals and spies could use the malware to gain access to iOS devices.

“We believe XcodeGhost is a very harmful and dangerous malware that has bypassed Apple’s code review and made unprecedented attacks on the iOS ecosystem,” he wrote.

—Yang Jie and Danny Yadron contributed to this article.


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