Within just a year, a flourishing global market was born from nothing. Its value is presently estimated at $5 billion, and its products are malicious, sophisticated spy phone malware (spyware), which home in on cellular phones, and as of recently also on tablets. They are operated remotely. According to a report in The New York Times, most dictatorial regimes around the world, and apparently even some governments in Europe, have already acquired them in order to monitor and eavesdrop on dissidents and government. They include countries with dark pasts of violating human rights, including Turkmenistan, Dubai, Bahrain, Brunei, Ethiopia, Mongolia, and Qatar. Two computer experts from San Francisco told the Times that spyware is operated by Bahrain across five continents.
Business institutions also use the spyware programs against competitors. Private investigators use them for missions that include tracking angry spouses engaged in divorce disputes or property battles, and big corporations use them for industrial espionage.
Spy phone software called FinSpy, developed in England, was offered in the past to former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak for $353,000, but it is unknown whether his agents managed to use it before he was deposed. Such spyware has also reached Israel. A year ago, it was revealed that 22 private investigators had been arrested on suspicion of having planted spyware in the mobile phones of the subjects of their investigation.
Available to all buyers
What is most frightening about this phenomenon is the ability to plant spyware from afar. The software enables surveillance of every movement made by the owner of the mobile phone being tracked. It can know where he is at any given moment, see every text message he sends or receives, listen to all of his conversations, view his emails, and record conversations taking place wherever the targeted phone is at that moment, as long as it's not off, while it is lying randomly on the table next to its owner.
Spy phone software, which is all relatively easily available to any buyer, doesn’t differentiate between the technological differences unifying all Google’s Android phones, from Apple iPhones. The scope of the use of spyware for Android tripled in the last quarter, in comparison with the preceding quarter.
This situation demands that someone come up with how to provide protection for mobile phone and tablet users from espionage and eavesdropping. A young Israeli company, just one year old, has done this, becoming the first in the world to develop sophisticated software against the spyware phenomenon. Lacoon Security (lacoonsecurity.com) operates from the stock market compound in Ramat Gan [city in Israel's Tel Aviv district]. The company was established by four 30-year-olds (three of them served in Unit 8200 in the IDF’s Military Intelligence) with rich experience in information security, in companies like NICE and McAfee. The four are Michael Shaulov, Ohad Bobrov, Sharon Sa’ar and Emmanuel Avner. Shlomo Kramer, one of the founders of [the IT security and firewall software firm] Checkpoint, and Mickey Boodaei, the director of the [computer security] firm Trusteer, invested $2.5 million in Lacoon.
“There are four patents in the software that provides protection from cellular spyware, based on the most advanced technological concept today — cloud computing,” says Lacoon CEO Shaulov. Until now, solutions offering protection from spyware have been based on applications and anti-virus software, “but their ability to identify a spy attack ranged from slim to none,” Shaulov continues.
The spy phone takes all of the private information of the victim (meaning, the user) from the device it has attacked, monitors him and eavesdrops on him. “The software turns on the device’s microphone, and the element listening from afar listens to [his] words,” says Shaulov. “There are spyware [programs] that eavesdrop without time limits, and others record and send the recording file to whoever ordered the eavesdropping.”
Business groups, like those competing for a specific contract, are likely to be interested in using spyware against their rivals. Shaulov says, “In this case, the spyware would be operated against someone in a competing organization or a financial manager. They would listen to work meetings and business discussions relating to competition in the contract.
Neutralization for $10
Lacoon’s protection software is similar to firewall protection software. It prevents the device that is armed with it from releasing any form of information in a malicious context or to a foreign element. The protection method is based on a survey of all incoming and outgoing communication from the device. “As soon as the protection software is installed on the mobile phone, it provides full protection for all forms of communication from the mobile unit held by the user,” Shaulov says.
For now, Lacoon is focusing on the business sector. An information security manager at an organization interested in the protection software receives user interface and access to the company’s website, and enters the cellular phone numbers of employers whose devices need to be protected. The installation is simple, and when completed, any attempt at attacking or spying on the mobile device is blocked, and its owners receive a warning. The protection software will be available on the private market in early 2013.
An organization asking to acquire the Lacoon software for its workers pays $10 per month for each device. Shaulov says that big banks all over the world have expressed great interest in the software developed by the company. He says that every year, thousands of attempts at using spyware are carried out in Israel: “There are countries in which 4 percent of all cellular device users have been identified as spy phone victims.”
“We have two basic suggestions for cellular device users,” Shaulov says. “The first is to create a personal protection password for the cellular phone, and the second is to make sure that the smartphone’s operating system is always as updated as possible. The older operating systems are far more breached than the systems on the market today, and they are more exposed to malicious attacks.”
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