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Hundreds of Defence Personnel Fell for ISI Malware in 'News Apps'

One of the top hackers in the country was engaged by the government to have a go at it. He is part of the select club of ‘ethical hackers’ who work independently but help the government on projects like these

Subhajit Sengupta | CNN-News18SubhajitSG

Updated:June 28, 2017, 2:21 PM IST
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New Delhi: An IP address, which seemed to be from Pakistan, caught Indian intelligence agencies’ attention last year as it was showing suspicious movements around crucial defence establishments.

One of the top hackers in the country was engaged by the government to have a go at it. He is part of the select club of ‘ethical hackers’ who work independently but help the government on projects like these.

A few days and codes down, he managed to break into the system. Soon, he realised the enormity of the task — this was an Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) address which had details of over 40,000 Indians, including their phone numbers.

indian news
This was an Inter-Services Intelligence address which had details of over 40,000 Indians, including their phone numbers

A further probe revealed the data had details of defence personnel and defence ministry officials. The hacker figured out this was an all-out cyber espionage game, played by Pakistan’s spy agency. But how did they gain control of so many mobile phones in India?

That is when he discovered three ‘news apps’. These were basically data stealing malware masquerading as apps which gave the latest defence news. Indian Sena News, Bharatiya Sena News and India Defense News (IDN) the three applications, which were available for download till early 2016, provided RSS feeds of news stories pertaining to India’s defense. But unknown to those who were lured to download them, these apps were equipped with Remote Access Trojan, a malware which can take control of your computer remotely.

sena news app
Indian Sena News, Bharatiya Sena News and India Defense News (IDN) the three applications, which were available for download till early 2016, provided RSS feeds of news stories pertaining to India’s defense

These apps were promoted on Facebook, targeting those who had a keen interest in India’s defence sector, especially members of the armed forces and those in the Ministry of Defence. Before being closed, the IDN Facebook page had more than 1200 likes from Facebook users who were in some manner linked to Indian Army. Likewise, the Bharatiya Sena News page had 3,300 page likes. These apps were capable of stealing SMSs, making videos, recording calls, sending screenshots, and stealing files.

Once the sleuths discovered all this, a report was prepared and submitted to the government, which asked them to keep a silent watch on the apps. Soon, when the cover was blown off, all the three apps were pulled down, marking an end to yet another vicious espionage attempt by the ISI.

indian sena app
These apps were capable of stealing SMSs, making videos, recording calls, sending screenshots, and stealing files

Strategic experts say there could be many other apps available for download which are run by either the ISI or some other rogue group to steal data.

Cybercrime expert Amit Dubey said, “Not just armed forces, there have been attacks on Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO) as well.”

After this episode, Indian government issued an advisory, asking the officers to refrain from downloading unknown apps and keep internet off when in high security zone.

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| Edited by: Aditya Nair
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