A team of former U.S. government intelligence operatives working for the United Arab Emirates hacked into the iPhones of activists, diplomats and rival foreign leaders with the help of a sophisticated spying tool called Karma, in a campaign that shows how potent cyber-weapons are proliferating beyond the world’s superpowers and into the hands of smaller nations.
The cyber tool allowed the small Gulf country to monitor hundreds of targets beginning in 2016, from the Emir of Qatar and a senior Turkish official to a Nobel Peace laureate human-rights activist in Yemen, according to five former operatives and program documents reviewed by Reuters. The sources interviewed by Reuters were not Emirati citizens.
Karma was used by an offensive cyber operations unit in Abu Dhabi comprised of Emirati security officials and former American intelligence operatives working as contractors for the UAE’s intelligence services. The existence of Karma and of the hacking unit, code named Project Raven, haven’t been previously reported. Raven’s activities are detailed in a separate story published by Reuters today.
The ex-Raven operatives described Karma as a tool that could remotely grant access to iPhones simply by uploading phone numbers or email accounts into an automated targeting system. The tool has limits — it doesn’t work on Android devices and doesn’t intercept phone calls. But it was unusually potent because, unlike many exploits, Karma did not require a target to click on a link sent to an iPhone, they said.
In 2016 and 2017, Karma was used to obtain photos, emails, text messages and location information from targets’ iPhones. The technique also helped the hackers harvest saved passwords, which could be used for other intrusions.
It isn’t clear whether the Karma hack remains in use. The former operatives said that by the end of 2017, security updates to Apple Inc’s iPhone software had made Karma far less effective.
Lori Stroud, a former Raven operative who also previously worked at the U.S. National Security Agency, told Reuters of the excitement when Karma was introduced in 2016. “It was like, ‘We have this great new exploit that we just bought. Get us a huge list of targets that have iPhones now,'” she said. “It was like Christmas.”
The disclosure of Karma and the Raven unit comes amid an escalating cyber arms race, with rivals such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE competing for the most sophisticated hacking tools and personnel.
Tools like Karma, which can exploit hundreds of iPhones simultaneously, capturing their location data, photos and messages, are particularly sought-after, veterans of cyberwarfare say. Only about 10 nations, such as Russia, China and the United States and its closest allies, are thought to be capable of developing such weapons, said Michael Daniel, a former White House cyber security czar under President Obama.
Karma and similar tools make personal devices like iPhones the “juiciest of targets,” said Patrick Wardle, a former National Security Agency researcher and Apple security expert.
A spokeswoman for UAE’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs declined to comment.
Apple declined to comment.