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An Award-Winning iPhone Hack Used by China to Spy on Uyghur Muslims

 

According to a recent article, the Chinese government used an award-winning iPhone hack first uncovered three years ago at a Beijing hacking competition to spy on the phones of Uyghur Muslims. The government was able to successfully tap into the phones of Uyghur Muslims in 2018 using a sophisticated tool, according to a study published Thursday by MIT Technology Review. 

For years, the US government and other major technology firms have recognized that China has been waging a violent campaign against ethnic minorities using social media, phones, and other technologies. The movement also attacked journalists and imitated Uyghur news organizations. 

According to MIT Technology Review report the hacking vulnerability was discovered during the Beijing competition. The Tianfu Cup hacking competition began in November 2018 in China as a way for Chinese hackers to discover vulnerabilities in popular tech software. According to the paper, the competition was modeled after an international festival called Pwn2Own, which attracts hackers from all over the world to show technical bugs so that marketers can discover and patch defects throughout their goods. 

However, China's Tianfu Cup was designed to enable Chinese hackers to show those vulnerabilities without exposing them to the rest of the world. According to the paper, this will enable the Chinese government to use those hacking methods found at the event for their own purposes. 

The very first event took place in November of 2018; Qixun Zhao, a researcher at Qihoo 360, won the top prize of $200,000 for demonstrating a remarkable chain of exploits that helped him to easily and reliably take control of even the newest and most up-to-date iPhones. He discovered a flaw in the kernel of the iPhone's operating system, originating from inside the Safari web browser. 

What's the end result? Any iPhone that accessed a web page containing Qixun's malicious code might be taken over by a remote intruder. It's the type of hack that could be traded on the black market for millions of dollars, allowing hackers or governments to spy on huge groups of people. It was given the name "Chaos" by Qixun. 

Apple patched it two months later, but an analysis revealed that it had been used by the Chinese government to hack Uyghur Muslims' iPhones in the interim. After US surveillance found it and confirmed it to Apple, the company released a low-key press release acknowledging it, but the full scale of it wasn't understood until now.

US Intelligence Task Force Accuses Russia Of Cyber Attack

 

Previously, US President Donald Trump had accused China of malicious security incidents; security experts and officials have suspected China to be involved in the recent cyberattacks on the US government and several other organizations in the nation but now other members of his administration are pointing out the finger at Moscow. 

In a joint statement on 5 January, the intelligence bodies said, "the attack believed to be an 'intelligence gathering' attempt, rather than cyber warfare, as touted by multiple lawmakers including President Donald Trump. Currently, it is also being observed that cyber-attack which attempted to sabotage online privacy and information has affected fewer than ten US government agencies along with several other organizations outside government”. 

 A collective report of government organizations, the UGC, also called Cyber Unified Coordination Group which has been set up to deal with the recent attack, stated that the Advance Persistence Threat (APT) actor which is responsible for the cyberattack was “likely Russian in origin”. It also said other government organizations that are collaborating for the collective report, are the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), and the National Security. 

The intelligence stated that the research regarding this is still going on to understand the scope of the data compromised during cyber attacks. According to the committee, the hacking attempts were initially made in March 2019 when the updated version of the IT network management tool called Orion was compromised. 
The report says those thousands of people who had installed this hacked tool across American territory, many of whom worked in important US federal agencies. Besides non-government organizations, a major part of the US government was compromised during the recent cyber attacks such as the Treasury and Department of Commerce, and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

"This is a serious compromise that will require a sustained and dedicated effort to remediate. Many organizations have to scour their systems for signs that they may have been compromised. The incident sent shockwaves across the US partly because the breach was undiscovered for many months and was potentially far-reaching in terms of who it might have affected. It also suggested a degree of sophistication and stealth which was widely seen as a trademark of hackers from the SVR", Russia's foreign intelligence agency, the Intelligence committee said in a statement.