Political activists from the Middle East were targeted in attacks that exploited a previously unknown Flash Player vulnerability to install a so-called lawful interception program designed for law enforcement use, security researchers from antivirus vendor Kaspersky Lab said Tuesday.
Last Thursday, Adobe released an emergency update for Flash Player in order to address two zero-day -- unpatched -- vulnerabilities that were already being used in active attacks. In its security advisory at the time, Adobe credited Sergey Golovanov and Alexander Polyakov of Kaspersky Lab for reporting one of the two vulnerabilities, namely the one identified as CVE-2013-0633.
[ ALSO: 15 free security tools you should try ]
On Tuesday, the Kaspersky Lab researchers revealed more information about how they originally discovered the vulnerability. "The exploits for CVE-2013-0633 have been observed while monitoring the so-called 'legal' surveillance malware created by the Italian company HackingTeam," Golovanov said in a blog post.
HackingTeam is based in Milan but also has a presence in Annapolis, Maryland, and Singapore. According to its website, the company develops a computer surveillance program called Remote Control System (RCS) that is sold to law enforcement and intelligence agencies.
"Here in HackingTeam we believe that fighting crime should be easy: we provide effective, easy-to-use offensive technology to the worldwide law enforcement and intelligence communities," the company says on its website.
Kaspersky Lab has been monitoring HackingTeam's RCS -- also known as DaVinci -- since August 2012, said Costin Raiu, director of Kaspersky Lab's global research and analysis team.
RCS/DaVinci can record text and audio conversations from different chat programs, including Skype, Yahoo Messenger, Google Talk and MSN Messenger; can steal Web browsing history; can turn on a computer's microphone and webcam; can steal credentials stored in browsers and other programs, and much more, he said.
Kaspersky researchers have detected around 50 incidents so far that involved DaVinci being used against computer users from various countries including Italy, Mexico, Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Argentina, Algeria, Mali, Iran, India and Ethiopia.
The most recent attacks that were exploiting the CVE-2013-0633 vulnerability targeted activists from a country in the Middle East, Raiu said. However, he declined to name the country in order to avoid exposing information that could lead to the victims being identified.
It's not clear if the zero-day exploit for CVE-2013-0633 was sold by HackingTeam together with the surveillance malware or if whoever purchased the program obtained the exploit from a different source, Raiu said.
HackingTeam did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In previous attacks detected by Kaspersky Lab, DaVinci was distributed via exploits for Flash Player vulnerabilities that were discovered by French vulnerability research firm Vupen, Raiu said.
Vupen openly admits to selling zero-day exploits, but claims that its customers are government and law enforcement agencies from countries that are members or partners of the NATO, ANZUS or ASEAN geopolitical organizations.
The DaVinci installer dropped on computers by the CVE-2013-0633 exploit in the first stage of the attack was signed with a valid digital certificate issued by GlobalSign to an individual named Kamel Abed, Raiu said.
GlobalSign did not immediately respond to a request for more information about this certificate and its current status.
This is consistent with past DaVinci attacks in which the dropper was also digitally signed, Raiu said. Previous certificates used to sign DaVinci droppers were registered to one Salvetore Macchiarella and a company called OPM Security registered in Panama, he said.
According to its website, OPM Security sells a product called Power Spy for A!200 (US$267) under the headline "spying on your husband, wife, children or employees." Power Spy's feature list is very similar to the feature list of DaVinci, which means that OPM might be a reseller of HackingTeam's surveillance program, Raiu said.
This is not the first case when lawful surveillance malware has been used against activists and dissidents in countries where free speech is limited.
There are previous reports of FinFisher, a computer surveillance toolkit developed by U.K.-based company Gamma Group International, being used against political activists in Bahrain.
Researchers from the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs also reported back in October that HackingTeam's RCS (DaVinci) program was used against a human rights activist from the United Arab Emirates.
This type of program is a ticking time bomb because of the lack of regulation and uncontrolled selling, Raiu said. Some countries have restrictions on the export of cryptographic systems, which would theoretically cover such programs, but these restrictions can be easily bypassed by selling the software through offshore resellers, he said.
The big problem is that these programs can be used not only by governments to spy on their own citizens, but can also be used by governments to spy on other governments or can be used for industrial and corporate espionage, Raiu said.
When such programs are used to attack large companies or are used by cyberterrorists, who will be responsible for the software falling into the wrong hands, Raiu asked.
From Kaspersky Lab's perspective, there's no question about it: These programs will be detected as malware regardless of their intended purpose, he said.