Google this week released details of a sophisticated new family of spyware tools that the company recently blocked from its Play mobile app store after discovering the malware being used against some Android users.
The spyware family, dubbed Lipizzan, appears to have been developed by Equus Technologies, a company that Google referred to as a 'cyber arms' vendor in a security blog Wednesday.
In total, Google discovered 20 Lipizzan apps distributed in a targeted fashion to less than 100 Android devices. The developer and the apps have been removed from Play and the Android ecosystem and the owners of the targeted devices have been notified as well.
Google has also enhanced its Google Play Protect app scanning features to detect and prevent Lipizzan and similar targeted spyware from being uploaded to the mobile app store, three members of Google's threat analysis group said in the blog.
Google described Lipizzan as a two-stage spyware tool designed to monitor and steal a victim's email and SMS messages, intercept voice calls and media and steal location data.
The first stage consisted of components that impersonated benign looking applications such as backup and disk-cleaning apps. The apps were distributed through multiple channels including Google Play.
When a victim installed the software, the first stage Lipizzan components would then download a second separate data monitoring and theft component. The second component was designed to work only if it determined the device was safe for it to do so.
"If given the all-clear, the second stage would then root the device with known exploits and begin to exfiltrate device data to a command and control server," according to the Google security blog.
Lipizzan's second application component was capable of a wide range of malicious activities. For instance it could be used to record voice calls, record from a phone's microphone, monitor the victim's location, take screenshots and take photos from the device's camera.
A threat actor could also use the spyware tool to steal device information and user data including contact information, SMS messages, call logs and application data.
The applications from which the second Lipizzan component could steal data included Gmail, Hangouts, Messenger, LinkedIn, SnapChat, Skype and WhatsApp.
The second Lipizzan application shared a common signing certificate with the first components showing that the same authors likely developed both. When Google managed to block the first set of Lipizzan applications from Google Play, the authors managed to quickly upload a new set of apps with the same capabilities but slightly different properties.
Instead of impersonating backup applications for instance, the new malware mimicked other innocuous sounding applications such as a sound recorder app and an alarm manager.
The second time around, the authors of the spyware family also integrated the second stage component directly with the first stage instead of having it as a separately downloadable component. Despite such changes Google managed to detect and block the malware, the three members of Google's security team said.
Google's security researchers discovered Lipizzan while chasing down another Android spyware family dubbed Chrysaor earlier this year. Like Lipizzan, Chrysaor was also used for targeted cyber-spying. The malware was discovered on what Google described as a few dozen Android devices.