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How China Turned a Prize-Winning iPhone Hack Against the Uyghurs

Friday May 7, 2021. 02:02 AM , from Slashdot
An attack that targeted Apple devices was used to spy on China's Muslim minority -- and US officials claim it was developed at the country's top hacking competition. An anonymous reader shares an excerpt from an MIT Technology Review article: The Tianfu Cup offered prizes that added up to over a million dollars. [It was held in November 2018, shortly after the Chinese banned cybersecurity researchers from attending overseas hacking competitions.] The $200,000 top prize went to Qihoo 360 researcher Qixun Zhao, who showed off a remarkable chain of exploits that allowed him to easily and reliably take control of even the newest and most up-to-date iPhones. From a starting point within the Safari web browser, he found a weakness in the core of the iPhones operating system, its kernel. The result? A remote attacker could take over any iPhone that visited a web page containing Qixun's malicious code. It's the kind of hack that can potentially be sold for millions of dollars on the open market to give criminals or governments the ability to spy on large numbers of people. Qixun named it 'Chaos.'

Two months later, in January 2019, Apple issued an update that fixed the flaw. There was little fanfare—just a quick note of thanks to those who discovered it. But in August of that year, Google published an extraordinary analysis into a hacking campaign it said was 'exploiting iPhones en masse.' Researchers dissected five distinct exploit chains they'd spotted 'in the wild.' These included the exploit that won Qixun the top prize at Tianfu, which they said had also been discovered by an unnamed 'attacker.' The Google researchers pointed out similarities between the attacks they caught being used in the real world and Chaos. What their deep dive omitted, however, were the identities of the victims and the attackers: Uyghur Muslims and the Chinese government.

Shortly after Google's researchers noted the attacks, media reports connected the dots: the targets of the campaign that used the Chaos exploit were the Uyghur people, and the hackers were linked to the Chinese government. Apple published a rare blog post that confirmed the attack had taken place over two months: that is, the period beginning immediately after Qixun won the Tianfu Cup and stretching until Apple issued the fix. MIT Technology Review has learned that United States government surveillance independently spotted the Chaos exploit being used against Uyghurs, and informed Apple. (Both Apple and Google declined to comment on this story.) The Americans concluded that the Chinese essentially followed the 'strategic value' plan laid out by Qihoo's Zhou Hongyi; that the Tianfu Cup had generated an important hack; and that the exploit had been quickly handed over to Chinese intelligence, which then used it to spy on Uyghurs. The US collected the full details of the exploit used to hack the Uyghurs, and it matched Tianfu's Chaos hack, MIT Technology Review has learned. (Google's in-depth examination later noted how structurally similar the exploits are.) The US quietly informed Apple, which had already been tracking the attack on its own and reached the same conclusion: the Tianfu hack and the Uyghur hack were one and the same. The company prioritized a difficult fix.

Read more of this story at Slashdot.

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