NIS hacking programs weren’t very up to date

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NIS hacking programs weren’t very up to date

The hacking programs purchased by the National Intelligence Service (NIS) from Italy to access mobile devices did not work on the most recent smartphones including the Samsung Galaxy S5 and S6 and late-model iPhones, according to documents submitted to the National Assembly Wednesday.

Amid ongoing allegations the NIS may have used the malware, called the remote control system (RCS), to spy on Korean people through their mobile devices, a report the NIS submitted to a standing committee of the National Assembly obtained by the JoongAng Ilbo said the programs “cannot hack the latest smartphones.”

In July, WikiLeaks released over 400 gigabytes of data from Italian surveillance malware vendor Hacking Team that indicated the NIS purchased software from it in 2012.

The leak led to allegations that the top spy agency may have spied on Koreans through their mobile devices during two election campaigns in 2012.

The NIS admitted it purchased RCS software in 2012, but denied it was used on regular South Koreans.

It said it was used to counter North Korean intelligence and terrorism or for research purposes.

Documents leaked from Hacking Team indicate that the program had difficulty hacking Apple’s iOS 7.0 operating system, which was released in 2013. However, Samsung’s Galaxy models, which are Android devices, are fairly vulnerable.

According to leaked emails and other documents from Hacking Team, the NIS tested the hacking capability on the newest Galaxy devices each time they were released.

An email sent by Hacking Team to an NIS agent surnamed Yim who committed suicide last month explained, “This Android remote exploit targets the default browser installed on Android 4 devices up to version 4.3. In order for the exploit to be effective, customers must provide a URL that the target’s browser will automatically load after successful exploitation or in case of error.”

Yim was the 45-year-old NIS employee who was found dead in his car in Yongin, Gyeonggi, on July 18. Police concluded he died by asphyxiation from toxic charcoal fumes.

He left behind a three-page suicide note in which he denied that the NIS monitored ordinary Koreans with the software purchased from Italy and admitted he deleted material from NIS records that could “cause misunderstandings related to counterterrorism and North Korea operations.”

“Starting from Galaxy S5, the Android 4.4 operating systems were used, so it seems that hacking them through the RCS program is not possible,” a National Assembly lawmaker said. “However, Galaxy S4 and older models can be hacked.”

Since the NIS spent 680,000 euros ($755,000) on the RCS software from Hacking Team, lawmakers are now complaining that purchasing a program with such limited capabilities was a waste of money.

The documents the NIS submitted to the National Assembly on the capability of the RCS program indicated that “its actual performance is inadequate because users frequently change mobile devices and the strengthening of security programs.”

The NIS claimed it used the RCS software to spy on foreign targets, but its ordinary Korean consumers, who are known to frequently upgrade their smartphones, raised further suspicions about who was spied upon.

BY NAMGUNG WOOK, WIE MOON-HEE [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]

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