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The SolarWinds Hackers Used an iOS Flaw to Compromise iPhones

The Russian state hackers who orchestrated the SolarWinds supply chain attack last year exploited an iOS zero-day as part of a separate malicious email campaign aimed at stealing Web authentication credentials from Western European governments, according to Google and Microsoft.

In a post Google published on Wednesday, researchers Maddie Stone and Clement Lecigne said a “likely Russian government-backed actor” exploited the then unknown vulnerability by sending messages to government officials over LinkedIn.

Moscow, Western Europe, and USAID

Attacks targeting CVE-2021-1879, as the zero-day is tracked, redirected users to domains that installed malicious payloads on fully updated iPhones. The attacks coincided with a campaign by the same hackers who delivered malware to Windows users, the researchers said.

The campaign closely tracks to one Microsoft disclosed in May. In that instance, Microsoft said that Nobelium—the name Microsoft uses to identify the hackers behind the SolarWinds supply chain attack—first managed to compromise an account belonging to USAID, a US government agency that administers civilian foreign aid and development assistance. With control of the agency’s account with the online marketing company Constant Contact, the hackers had the ability to send emails that appeared to use addresses known to belong to the US agency.

The federal government has attributed last year’s supply chain attack to hackers working for Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (abbreviated as SVR). For more than a decade, the SVR has conducted malware campaigns targeting governments, political think tanks, and other organizations in countries including Germany, Uzbekistan, South Korea, and the US. Targets have included the US State Department and the White House in 2014. Other names used to identify the group include APT29, the Dukes, and Cozy Bear.

In an email, the head of Google’s Threat Analysis Group, Shane Huntley, confirmed the connection between the attacks involving USAID and the iOS zero-day, which resided in the WebKit browser engine.

“These are two different campaigns, but based on our visibility, we consider the actors behind the WebKit 0-day and the USAID campaign to be the same group of actors,” Huntley wrote. “It is important to note that everyone draws actor boundaries differently. In this particular case, we are aligned with the US and UK government’s assessment of APT 29.”

Forget the Sandbox

Throughout the campaign, Microsoft said, Nobelium experimented with multiple attack variations. In one wave, a Nobelium-controlled web server profiled devices that visited it to determine what OS and hardware the devices ran on. In the event the targeted device was an iPhone or iPad, a server delivered an exploit for CVE-2021-1879, which allowed hackers to deliver a universal cross-site scripting attack. Apple patched the zero-day in late March.

In Wednesday’s post, Stone and Lecigne wrote:

After several validation checks to ensure the device being exploited was a real device, the final payload would be served to exploit CVE-​2021-1879. This exploit would turn off Same-Origin-Policy protections in order to collect authentication cookies from several popular websites, including Google, Microsoft, LinkedIn, Facebook, and Yahoo and send them via WebSocket to an attacker-controlled IP. The victim would need to have a session open on these websites from Safari for cookies to be successfully exfiltrated. There was no sandbox escape or implant delivered via this exploit. The exploit targeted iOS versions 12.4 through 13.7. This type of attack, described by Amy Burnett in Forget the Sandbox Escape: Abusing Browsers From Code Execution, are mitigated in browsers with Site Isolation enabled such as Chrome or Firefox.

It’s Raining Zero-Days

The iOS attacks are part of a recent explosion in the use of zero-days. In the first half of this year, Google’s Project Zero vulnerability-research group has recorded 33 zero-day exploits used in attacks—11 more than the total number from 2020. The growth has several causes, including better detection by defenders and better software defenses that, in turn, require multiple exploits to break through.

The other big driver is the increased supply of zero-days from private companies selling exploits.


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