Supporters of the Islamic State, most of them Persian speakers, were spied on by the government of Iran after they downloaded a fake smartphone application with wallpaper images, according to an online security firm.
Iran is a major adversary of the radical Sunni group Islamic State. The latter considers Shiism (Iran’s state religion) as an abomination. Not surprisingly, therefore, the Islamic State, which is also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), relies largely on supporters from the Arabic-speaking regions of the Levant. But according to estimates, Sunnis constitute about 10 percent of Iran’s population, and ISIS has found some fertile ground among Iran’s 8 million-strong Sunni minority. As a result, the government in Tehran is highly mistrustful of Iranian Sunnis, many of whom are ethnic Kurds, Baluchis, Azeris or Turkomans, and systematically spies on them.
According to the Israeli online security firm Check Point Software Technologies, one way in which Tehran has spied on Persian-speaking ISIS supporters is through fake smartphone applications. In an article published last week, the company said it had uncovered a state-sponsored surveillance operation that it had codenamed “Domestic Kitten”. The Check Point article said that the operation had gone on for more than two years, but had remained undetected “due to the artful deception of its attackers towards their targets”. The surveillance of targeted phones was carried out with the help of an application that featured pro-ISIS-themed wallpapers, which users could download on their devices. Yet another program linked to the same vendor was a fake version of the Firat News Agency mobile phone application. The Firat News Agency is a legitimate Iranian information service featuring news about Iran’s Kurdish minority. But both applications were in fact malware that gave a remote party full access to all text messages sent or received on the compromised phones. They also gave a remote party access to records of phone calls, Internet browser activity and bookmarks, and all files stored on the compromised phones. Additionally, the fake applications gave away the geo-location of compromised devices, and used their built-in cameras and microphones as surveillance devices.
Check Point said that the majority of compromised phones belonged to Persian-speaking members of Iran’s Kurdish and Turkoman minorities. The company stressed that it was not able to confirm the identity of the sponsoring party with absolute accuracy. However, the nature of the fake applications, the infrastructure of the surveillance operation, as well as the identities of those targeted, posed a strong possibility that “Domestic Kitten” was sponsored by the government of Iran, it concluded. Last July, the American cyber security firm Symantec said that it had uncovered a new cyber espionage group called “Leafminer”, which was allegedly sponsored by the Iranian state. The group had reportedly launched attacks on more than 800 agencies and organizations in in countries such as Israel, Egypt, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Afghanistan and Azerbaijan.