If you’re in the business of writing spyware or malware, smartphones are a tempting target. For many people, their phone or tablet is now the primary compute device they use to surf the web, access content, and explore new software. Google has had problems keeping the Google Play store free from malware and spyware, but new information suggests that both Google and Samsung almost faced a much more potent opponent — the NSA itself.
A report from The Intercept highlights how the NSA explored options for hacking the App Store and Google Play over several workshops held in Australia and Canada between November 2011 and February 2012. The projects used the Internet-monitoring Xkeyscore system to identify smartphone traffic, then trace that traffic back to app stores. This led to a project dubbed Irritant Horn, the point of which was to develop the ability to distribute “implants” that could be installed when the smartphones in question attempted to connect to Google or Samsung app stores.
The NSA has targeted mobile devices ever since the post-Patriot Act era made such warrantless comprehensive spying legal, but it’s never been clear how the organization managed to tap certain hardware in the first place. The goal was twofold: First, use app stores to launch spyware campaigns and second, gather information about the phone users themselves by infiltrating the app stores in question.