SKeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom - Samir Kassir Foundation

Running in Circles: Uncovering the Clients of Cyberespionage Firm Circles

Source CitizenLab
Friday , 04 December 2020

The public discussion around surveillance and tracking largely focuses on well known technical means, such as targeted hacking and network interception. However, other forms of surveillance are regularly and extensively used by governments and third parties to engage in cross-border surveillance and monitoring.


One of the widest-used—but least appreciated—is the leveraging of weaknesses in the global mobile telecommunications infrastructure to monitor and intercept phone calls and traffic.


While well-resourced governments have long had the ability to conduct such activity, in recent years companies have emerged to sell these capabilities. For example, the Guardian reported in March 2020 that Saudi Arabia appeared to be “exploiting weaknesses in the global mobile telecommunications network to track citizens as they travel around the US.” Other investigative reports indicated that journalists, dissidents, and opposition politicians in Nigeria and Guatemala were similarly targeted.


Abuse of the global telephone system for tracking and monitoring is believed to be widespread, however it is difficult to investigate. When a device is tracked—or messages intercepted—there are not necessarily any traces on the target’s device for researchers or investigators to find. Meanwhile, cellular carriers have many technical difficulties identifying and blocking abuses of their infrastructure.


SS7 Attacks

Signaling System 7 (SS7) is a protocol suite developed in 1975 for exchanging information and routing phone calls between different wireline telecommunications companies. At the time of SS7’s development, the global phone network consisted of a small club of monopolistic telecommunications operators. Because these companies generally trusted each other, SS7 designers saw no pressing need to include authentication or access control. However, the advent of telecommunications deregulation and mobile technology soon began to challenge the assumption of trust. Even so, SS7 endured, thanks to a desire to maintain interoperability with older equipment.


Because of SS7’s lack of authentication, any attacker that interconnects with the SS7 network (such as an intelligence agency, a cybercriminal purchasing SS7 access, or a surveillance firm running a fake phone company) can send commands to a subscriber’s “home network” falsely indicating that the subscriber is roaming. These commands allow the attacker to track the victim’s location, and intercept voice calls and SMS text messages. Such capabilities could also be used to intercept codes used for two-factor authentication sent via SMS. It is challenging and expensive for telecommunications operators to distinguish malicious traffic from benign behavior, making these attacks tricky to block.


Today, SS7 is predominantly used in 2G and 3G mobile networks (4G networks use the newer Diameter protocol). One of SS7’s key functions in these networks is handling roaming, where a subscriber to a “home network” can connect to a different “visited network,” such as when traveling internationally. In this situation, SS7 is used to handle forwarding of phone calls and SMS text messages to the “visited network.” Although 4G’s Diameter protocol includes features for authentication and access control, these are optional. Additionally, the need for Diameter networks to interconnect with SS7 networks also introduces security issues. There is widespread concern that 5G technology and other advances will inherit the risks of these older systems.


Circles

While companies selling exploitation of the global cellular system tend to operate in secrecy, one company has emerged as a known player: Circles. The company was reportedly founded in 2008acquired in 2014 by Francisco Partners, and then merged with NSO Group. Circles is known for selling systems to exploit SS7 vulnerabilities, and claims to sell this technology exclusively to nation-states.


Unlike NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware, the SS7 mechanism by which Circles’ product reportedly operates does not have an obvious signature on a target’s phone, such as the telltale targeting SMS bearing a malicious link that is sometimes present on a phone targeted with Pegasus.


Most investigation of Circles has relied on inside sources and open source intelligence, rather than technical analysis. For example, a 2016 investigation by Nigerian newspaper Premium Times reported that two state governors in Nigeria acquired Circles systems and used them to spy on political opponents. In one case, the system was installed at the residence of a governor. Our scanning found two Circles systems in Nigeria (Section 4).


Documents filed as part of a lawsuit against NSO Group in Israel purport to show emails exchanged between Circles and several customers in the UAE. Most famously, the documents show Circles sending targets’ locations and phone records (Call Detail Records or CDRs) to the UAE Supreme Council on National Security (SCNS), apparently as part of a product demonstration. The emails also indicate that intercepting phone calls of a foreign target has a higher chance of success when the target is roaming.

Summary & Key Findings

  • Circles is a surveillance firm that reportedly exploits weaknesses in the global mobile phone system to snoop on calls, texts, and the location of phones around the globe. Circles is affiliated with NSO Group, which develops the oft-abused Pegasus spyware.
  • Circles, whose products work without hacking the phone itself, says they sell only to nation-states. According to leaked documents, Circles customers can purchase a system that they connect to their local telecommunications companies’ infrastructure, or can use a separate system called the “Circles Cloud,” which interconnects with telecommunications companies around the world.
  • According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, all U.S. wireless networks are vulnerable to the types of weaknesses reportedly exploited by Circles. A majority of networks around the globe are similarly vulnerable.
  • Using Internet scanning, we found a unique signature associated with the hostnames of Check Point firewalls used in Circles deployments. This scanning enabled us to identify Circles deployments in at least 25 countries.
  • We determine that the governments of the following countries are likely Circles customers: Australia, Belgium, Botswana, Chile, Denmark, Ecuador, El Salvador, Estonia, Equatorial Guinea, Guatemala, Honduras, Indonesia, Israel, Kenya, Malaysia, Mexico, Morocco, Nigeria, Peru, Serbia, Thailand, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Vietnam, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.
  • Some of the specific government branches we identify with varying degrees of confidence as being Circles customers have a history of leveraging digital technology for human rights abuses. In a few specific cases, we were able to attribute the deployment to a particular customer, such as the Security Operations Command (ISOC) of the Royal Thai Army, which has allegedly tortured detainees.
For the full report, click here.

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