Lookout researchers, who were investigating potentially malicious mobile applications pertaining to COVID-19, discovered an Android application that appears to be the most recent piece of tooling in a larger mobile surveillance campaign operating out of Libya and targeting Libyan individuals.
According to new Lookout research, written by Kristin Del Rosso, Senior Security Intelligence Engineer, the application is titled “corona live 1.1.” Upon first launch, the app informs the user it does not require special access privileges, but subsequently proceeds to request access to photos, media, files, device location, as well as permission to take pictures and record video. In reality, the corona live 1.1 app is a SpyMax sample, a trojanized version of the legitimate “corona live” application, which provides an interface to the data found on the Johns Hopkins coronavirus tracker including infection rates and number of deaths over time and per country, says the research. 
SpyMax is a commercial surveillanceware family that appears to have been developed by the same creators as SpyNote, another low-cost commercial Android surveillanceware. SpyMax has all the capabilities of a standard spying tool, and forums referencing the malware praise its “simple graphical interface” and ease of use. In addition, SpyMax allows the actor to access a variety of sensitive data on the phone, and provides a shell terminal and the ability to remotely activate the microphone and cameras.
The application, say Lookout researchers, stores command and control (C2) information in resources/values/strings as is common in SpyMax and SpyNote samples, where it contains the hard-coded address of the attacker’s server. Pivoting off of this domain enabled Lookout researchers to find 30 unique APKs that share infrastructure in what appears to be a larger surveillance campaign that has been ongoing since at least April, 2019. The applications used by this actor are functional and belong to a variety of commercial surveillanceware families that the Lookout research team has been tracking for years, including SpyMax, SpyNote, SonicSpy, SandroRat, and Mobihok.
The titles of these apps that share the malicious infrastructure are fairly generic, adds Lookout. The two newest are COVID-19-related, with another sample called “Crona.” What piqued the researcher’s interest were three applications titled “Libya Mobile Lookup," which belong to the SpyNote family and are the earliest samples ingested that communicate with the C2 infrastructure, note the researchers. "This indicates they were likely the first apps rolled out in this surveillance campaign, and offer insight into who the targeted demographic might be," says the study. 
According to the researchers, the C2 domain is hosted through the dynamic DNS provider No-IP and the address space appears to be operated by Libyan Telecom and Technology, a consumer internet service provider, and the naming of the reverse DNS records associated with the IP addresses indicates that they are likely part of a pool used for DSL connections.

The person or group running the campaign is likely in Libya and using their own infrastructure to run the C2, or is leveraging infrastructure they have compromised there, notes the study. While Lookout researchers have not seen anything at the moment to indicate this is a state-sponsored campaign, the use of these commercial surveillanceware families has been observed in the past as part of the tooling used by nation states in the Middle East. While nation states can and do develop their own custom tooling, they have also been known to use out-of-the-box open-source and commercial tools, as well as sometimes use commercial or open source malware as a starting point to develop their own malware, note the researchers. 

"In terms of ease of acquisition, SpyNote and Mobihok have fairly cheap licensing costs, and even offer support for users to set up their applications. With sites that offer an easy checkout process and customer support, these commercial surveillanceware vendors make it possible for anyone to acquire, customize and manage their own spy tools," conclude the researchers.