China Accused of Hacking into Hong Kong Protesters’ Phones

Fake app enables Chinese intelligence to monitor messages
Student activists wait on the streets near the government headquarters, Thursday, Oct. 2

Student activists wait on the streets near the government headquarters, Thursday, Oct. 2 / AP

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A mobile security firm on Wednesday accused China of disseminating a fake application to Hong Kong protesters that could enable authorities to eavesdrop on their messages, the New York Times reports.

Lacoon Mobile Security said smartphone users in Hong Kong were experiencing a phishing attack. Cellphone users have been encouraged to download a fake app that was allegedly designed by a programming group supporting the pro-democracy protests. The group, Code4HK, says it did not create the app:

Though Michael Shaulov, Lacoon’s chief executive, said it was impossible to be certain about the origin of the fake app, he said signs pointed to the Chinese government. Given the “targets of the operation, where the servers are based and the sophistication of the attack, it doesn’t leave much room to the imagination.”

After users download the application, it has the ability to gain access to personal data like passwords and bank information, spy on phone calls and messages and track the physical location of the infected smartphone. It is unclear how many smartphones in Hong Kong have been hit, but in similar attacks in the past, one in 10 phones that received such a message became infected, according to Mr. Shaulov.

“These really cheap social engineering tricks; they have a high rate of success,” he said.

What makes the malicious app stand out is a version that can infect Apple’s iOS mobile operating system, which is usually more secure than Google’s Android, Mr. Shaulov said. Android is the dominant system on non-Apple phones. […]

The recent targeting of the protests in Hong Kong has been part of a sustained campaign — most likely carried out by Chinese intelligence — dating back to about a year ago, according to Dmitri Alperovitch, co-founder and chief technology officer of the security firm CrowdStrike. He said he expected cyberattacks to monitor and potentially discredit protest leaders to increase in the coming weeks.

Chinese authorities have also largely shut down access to Instagram on the mainland in recent days and removed several pro-democracy posts on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter. The Chinese government is eager to quell any dissent on the mainland that might be inspired by unrest in Hong Kong.

Dozens of Chinese activists have been detained in recent days after they expressed support for the Hong Kong demonstrators.