AGENT SMITH

July 10, 2019

Check Point Researchers recently discovered a new variant of mobile malware that quietly infected around 25 million devices, while the user remains completely unaware. Disguised as Google related app, the core part of malware exploits various known Android vulnerabilities and automatically replaces installed apps on the device with malicious versions without the user’s interaction. This unique on-device, just-in-time (JIT) approach inspired researchers to dub this malware as “Agent Smith”.

“Agent Smith” currently uses its broad access to the device’s resources to show fraudulent ads for financial gain. This activity resembles previous campaigns such as Gooligan, HummingBad and CopyCat. The primary targets, so far, are based in India though other Asian countries such as Pakistan and Bangladesh are also affected.

In a much-improved Android security environment, the actors behind Agent Smith seem to have moved into the more complex world of constantly searching for new loopholes, such as Janus, Bundle and Man-in-the-Disk, to achieve a 3-stage infection chain, in order to build a botnet of controlled devices to earn profit for the perpetrator. “Agent Smith” is possibly the first campaign seen that ingrates and weaponized all these loopholes and are described in detail below.

In this case, “Agent Smith” is being used to for financial gain through the use of malicious advertisements. However, it could easily be used for far more intrusive and harmful purposes such as banking credential theft. Indeed, due to its ability to hide it’s icon from the launcher and impersonates any popular existing apps on a device, there are endless possibilities for this sort of malware to harm a user’s device.

Check Point Research has submitted data to Google and law enforcement units to facilitate further investigation. As a result, information related to the malicious actor is tentatively redacted in this publication. Check Point has worked closely with Google and at the time of publishing, no malicious apps remain on the Play Store.

Encounter

In early 2019, the Check Point Research team observed a surge of Android malware attack attempts against users in India which had strong characteristics of Janus vulnerability abuse; All samples our team collected during preliminary investigation had the ability to hide their app icons and claim to be Google related updaters or vending modules (a key component of Google Play framework).

Upon further analysis it became clear this application was as malicious as they come and initially resembled the CopyCat malware, discovered by Check Point Research back in April 2016. As the research progressed, it started to reveal unique characteristics which made us believe we were looking at an all-new malware campaign found in the wild.

After a series of technical analysis (which is covered in detail below) and heuristic threat hunting, we discovered that a complete “Agent Smith” infection has three main phases:

A dropper app lures victim to install itself voluntarily. The initial dropper has a weaponized Feng Shui Bundle as encrypted asset files. Dropper variants are usually barely functioning photo utility, games, or sex related apps.
The dropper automatically decrypts and installs its core malware APK which later conducts malicious patching and app updates. The core malware is usually disguised as Google Updater, Google Update for U or “com.google.vending”. The core malware’s icon is hidden.
The core malware extracts the device’s installed app list. If it finds apps on its prey list (hard-coded or sent from C&C server), it will extract the base APK of the target innocent app on the device, patch the APK with malicious ads modules, install the APK back and replace the original one as if it is an update.


“Agent Smith” repacks its prey apps at smali/baksmali code level. During the final update installation process, it relies on the Janus vulnerability to bypass Android’s APK integrity checks. Upon kill chain completion, “Agent Smith” will then hijack compromised user apps to show ads. In certain situations, variants intercept compromised apps’ original legitimate ads display events and report back to the intended ad-exchange with the “Agent Smith” campaign hacker’s ad IDs.

Our intelligence shows “Agent Smith” droppers proliferate through third-party app store “9Apps”, a UC team backed store, targeted mostly at Indian (Hindi), Arabic, and Indonesian users. “Agent Smith” itself, though, seems to target mainly India users.

Unlike previously discovered non Google Play centric campaigns whose victims almost exclusively come from less developed countries and regions, “Agent Smith” successfully penetrated into noticeable number of devices in developed countries such as Saudi Arabia, UK and US.

Technical Analysis

“Agent Smith” has a modular structure and consists of the following modules:

Loader
Core
Boot
Patch
AdSDK
Updater
As stated above, the first step of this infection chain is the dropper. The dropper is a repacked legitimate application which contains an additional piece of code – “loader”.

The loader has a very simple purpose, extract and run the “core” module of “Agent Smith”. The “core” module communicates with the C&C server, receiving the predetermined list of popular apps to scan the device for. If any application from that list was found, it utilizes the Janus vulnerability to inject the “boot” module into the repacked application. After the next run of the infected application, the “boot” module will run the “patch” module, which hooks the methods from known ad SDKs to its own implementation.

Conclusion

Although the actor behind “Agent Smith” decided to make their illegally acquired profit by exploiting the use of ads, another actor could easily take a more intrusive and harmful route. With the ability to hide its icon from the launcher and hijack popular existing apps on a device, there are endless possibilities to harm a user’s digital even physical security. Today this malware shows unwanted ads, tomorrow it could steal sensitive information; from private messages to banking credentials and much more.

The “Agent Smith” campaign serves as a sharp reminder that effort from system developers alone is not enough to build a secure Android eco-system. It requires attention and action from system developers, device manufacturers, app developers, and users, so that vulnerability fixes are patched, distributed, adopted and installed in time.

It is also another example for why organizations and consumers alike should have an advanced mobile threat prevention solution installed on the device to protect themselves against the possibility of unknowingly installing malicious apps, even from trusted app stores.

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