The unprecedented attack on Apple iPhones revealed by Google this week was broader than first thought. Multiple sources with knowledge of the situation said that Google’s own Android operating system and Microsoft Windows PCs were also targeted in a campaign that sought to infect the computers and smartphones of the Uighur ethnic group in China. That community has long been targeted by the Chinese government, in particular in the Xinjiang region, where surveillance is pervasive.
Google’s and Microsoft’s operating systems were targeted via the same websites that launched the iPhone hacks, according to the sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
That Android and Windows were targeted is a sign that the hacks were part of a broad, two-year effort that went beyond Apple phones and infected many more than first suspected. One source suggested that the attacks were updated over time for different operating systems as the tech usage of the Uighur community changed. Android and Windows are still the most widely used operating systems in the world. They both remain hugely attractive targets for hackers, be they government-sponsored or criminal.
Google hadn’t provided comment at the time of publication. It’s unclear if Google knew or disclosed that the sites were also targeting other operating systems. One source familiar with the hacks claimed Google had only seen iOS exploits being served from the sites.
“Google Project Zero was very specific in its blog post that the recently publicized attacks used unique iPhone exploits and they have not disclosed similar information to us,” a Microsoft spokesperson said. “Microsoft has a strong commitment to investigate reported security issues and, should new information be disclosed, we will take appropriate action as needed to help keep customers protected.”
Apple has yet to offer any statement on the attacks and hadn’t provided comment on the latest developments.
Google told Apple which sites had been targeted in February, according to one source close to Google, whose researchers revealed the attacks on August 29. But no one has yet named which specific Uighur-interest sites were used to launch malicious code on iPhones.
It’s unclear exactly what Android and Windows exploits were launched via the websites that were used to launch attacks on Apple’s OS. In the case of the iOS hacks, the exploits placed malware on the phone and could spy on a massive amount of data. That included encrypted WhatsApp, iMessage and Telegram texts, as well as live location.
Sustained surveillance in Xinjiang
The attacks appear to form part of a mass surveillance operation taking place on Uighur civilians, who’ve faced various forms of persecution in Xinjiang. Surveillance cameras are scattered across the region and facial recognition is prevalent.
“The Chinese government has been systematically targeting the Uighur population for surveillance and imprisonment for years,” said Cooper Quintin, senior staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
“These attacks likely have the goal of spying on the Uighur population in China, the Uyghur diaspora outside of China and people who sympathize with and might wish to help the Uighur in their struggle for independence.”
Visit DigTec’s Cyber Security Blog
Follow to keep up with the latest updates related to Cyber Security.