Infected Google Play apps are targeting North Korean defectors

by Gabriel E. Hall - -

RedDawn authors are targeting North Korean victims using Messenger

North Koreans use malware uploaded on Play Store to track refugees

North Korea is known for its totalitarian regime around the world. It is also not a secret that residents are try to flee the country while risking their lives. After the escape, however, they might still be detected and tracked, as security experts from McAfee discovered[1] a new string of malware attacks that target North Korean defectors.

The malware, dubbed RedDawn, was found by security specialists in three different apps on Google Play Store. If executed and installed on Android device, it can steal a significant amount of personal information, such as contact list, messages, photos, phone numbers, social media information and similar data. Later on, it can be used to threaten victims.

These infected apps can be freely downloaded from their official sites and other resources. However, the hacker group called Sun Team has been relying on another method – Facebook's Messenger. They used it to communicate with victims and urge them to download the virus using phishing messages. The fake accounts created by hackers use stolen social network photos of South Koreans, and quite a few individuals reported identity fraud.[2]

As evident, cybercrooks have been spreading malware using Messenger[3] for awhile now, and it does not seem that these type of attacks are going to stop anytime soon. Since the discovery, all malicious apps were taken down by Google.

Malicious apps, luckily enough, haven't been downloaded by many

These three apps discovered by the security team from McAfee as malicious are:

  • 음식궁합 (Food Ingredients Info)
  • Fast AppLock
  • AppLockFree

While the first app focused on food preparation, other two were connected to the online security (ironically). Regardless of the app content, seems like the Sun Team tried to appeal to multiple people. 

Infections are multi-staged, as the first two apps get commands, together with a .dex executable from a remote cloud server. It is believed that, unlike the first two apps, AppLockFree is used for surveillance stage of the infection. Nevertheless, once the payload is executed, malware can harvest the needed information about users and send it to Sun Team using Dropbox and Yandex cloud-based services.

Security experts managed to catch malware in early stages, meaning that it did not spread widely. Nevertheless, it is perceived that around 100 infections took place before Google took off the malicious apps off their store.

Previous Sun Team attacks had been targeting Korean defectors as well

RedDawn is not the first malware attack carried out by Sun Team. Security researchers published a report in January 2018 about another string of malware attacks which targeted Korean defectors and journalists using Kakao Talk[4] and other social networks during 2017. It took two months before malicious apps were spotted and removed by Google.

Security researchers could confidently link these attacks to North Koreans based on the fact that they found some words on malware's control server that are not native to South Korea. Besides, the IP address also pointed to North Korea. 

According to research, around 30,000 North Korean people fled to South and more than 1000 are trying to escape the regime every year. Although Kim Jong Un recently was talking to American and South Korean leaders about ending a 60-year old war,[5] attacks like these prove how oppressive the views of North Korean leaders really are.

About the author

Gabriel E. Hall
Gabriel E. Hall - Passionate computer expert

Gabriel E. Hall is an expert troubleshooter who has been working in the information technology industry for years.

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