The Citizen Lab
by Bill Marczak, Geoffrey Alexander, Sarah McKune, John Scott-Railton, and Ron Deibert
- This report describes how Ethiopian dissidents in the US, UK, and other countries were targeted with emails containing sophisticated commercial spyware posing as Adobe Flash updates and PDF plugins. Targets include a US-based Ethiopian diaspora media outlet, the Oromia Media Network (OMN), a PhD student, and a lawyer. During the course of our investigation, one of the authors of this report was also targeted.
- We found a public logfile on the spyware’s command and control server and monitored this logfile over the course of more than a year. We saw the spyware’s operators connecting from Ethiopia, and infected computers connecting from IP addresses in 20 countries, including IP addresses we traced to Eritrean companies and government agencies.
- Our analysis of the spyware indicates it is a product known as PC Surveillance System (PSS), a commercial spyware product with a novel exploit-free architecture. PSS is offered by Cyberbit — an Israel-based cyber security company that is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Elbit Systems — and marketed to intelligence and law enforcement agencies.
- We conducted Internet scanning to find other servers associated with PSS and found several servers that appear to be operated by Cyberbit themselves. The public logfiles on these servers seem to have tracked Cyberbit employees as they carried infected laptops around the world, apparently providing demonstrations of PSS to the Royal Thai Army, Uzbekistan’s National Security Service, Zambia’s Financial Intelligence Centre, the Philippine President’s Malacañang Palace, ISS World Europe 2017 in Prague, and Milipol 2017 in Paris. Cyberbit also appears to have provided other demos of PSS in France, Vietnam, Kazakhstan, Rwanda, Serbia, and Nigeria.
This report describes a campaign of targeted malware attacks apparently carried out by Ethiopia from 2016 until the present. In the attacks we document, targets receive via email a link to a malicious website impersonating an online video portal. When a target clicks on the link, they are invited to download and install an Adobe Flash update (containing spyware) before viewing the video. In some cases, targets are instead prompted to install a fictitious app called “Adobe PdfWriter” in order to view a PDF file. Our analysis traces the spyware to a heretofore unobserved player in the commercial spyware space: Israel’s Cyberbit, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Elbit Systems. The spyware appears to be a product called PC Surveillance System (PSS), recently renamed PC 360.
The attacks we first identified were targeted at Oromo dissidents based outside of Ethiopia, including the Oromia Media Network (OMN). Oromia is the largest regional ethnic state of Ethiopia by population and area, comprised mostly of the Oromo people. Read more…