ESET Research discovers DazzleSpy: macOS malware spyware

On November 11th, Google TAG published a blogpost about watering-hole attacks leading to exploits for the Safari web browser running on macOS. ESET researchers had been investigating this campaign the week before that publication, uncovering additional details about the targets and malware used to compromise its victims. Here we provide a breakdown of the WebKit exploit used to compromise Mac users and an analysis of the payload, which is a new malware family targeting macOS. But first, let’s look at how victims came into contact with the malicious code in the first place.

  • A watering hole attack compromised a Hong Kong radio station news website.
  • The attackers served a Safari exploit that installed cyberespionage malware DazzleSpy on site visitors’ Macs.
  • The vulnerability could also have been exploited on iOS, even on devices such as the iPhone XS and newer. In fact, this campaign has similarities with one from 2020 where LightSpy iOS malware was distributed the same way.
  • The payload – DazzleSpy – is capable of a wide variety of cyberespionage actions.
  • ESET Research can conclude that the group behind this operation has strong technical capabilities.
  • The malware uses China Standard Time and contains a number of internal messages in Chinese.

ESET researchers have discovered that the news website of Hong Kong radio station D100 was recently compromised to serve a Safari exploit that installed cyberespionage malware on site visitors’ Macs. The watering-hole operations the attackers have pursued show that the targets are likely to be individuals in Hong Kong. The malware delivered to vulnerable visitors of the site was new macOS malware ESET has named DazzleSpy. The malicious code is capable of collecting a wide variety of sensitive and personal information.

The first report about the watering-hole attacks leading to exploits for the Safari web browser running on macOS was published by Google last November. ESET researchers were investigating the attacks at the same time as Google and have uncovered additional details about both the targets and malware used to compromise the victims. ESET has confirmed that the patch identified by the Google team fixes the Safari vulnerability used in the attacks.

The exploit used to gain code execution in the browser is quite complex and had more than 1,000 lines of code. It’s interesting to note that some code suggests the vulnerability could also have been exploited on iOS, even on devices such as the iPhone XS and newer,” says Marc-Étienne Léveillé, who investigated the watering-hole attack.

This campaign has similarities with one from 2020 where LightSpy iOS malware was distributed the same way, using iframe injection on websites for Hong Kong citizens leading to a WebKit exploit.

The payload – DazzleSpy – is capable of a wide variety of cyberespionage actions. It can collect information about the compromised computer; search for specified files; scan files in Desktop, Downloads, and Documents folders; execute the supplied shell commands; start or end a remote screen session; and write a supplied file to disk.

Given the complexity of the exploits used in this campaign, ESET Research can conclude that the group behind this operation has strong technical capabilities. It’s also interesting that end-to-end encryption is enforced in DazzleSpy meaning it won’t communicate with its command and control (C&C) server if anyone tries to eavesdrop on the unencrypted transmission.

Among other interesting findings about this threat actor is that once the malware obtains the current date and time on a compromised computer, it converts the obtained date to the Asia/Shanghai time zone (aka China Standard Time), before sending it to the C&C server. In addition, the DazzleSpy malware contains a number of internal messages in Chinese.

For more technical details about this watering-hole attack and the DazzleSpy malware, read the blogpost “Watering hole deploys new macOS malware, DazzleSpy, in Asia” on WeLiveSecurity. Make sure to follow ESET Ireland on Twitter for the latest news from ESET Research.


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