Apple targeted as hackers infect popular Chinese mobile apps with malware

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Some of the most popular Chinese names in Apple Inc.’s App Store were found to be infected with malicious software in what is being described as a first-of-its-kind security breach, exposing a rare vulnerability in Apple’s mobile platform, according to multiple researchers.

The applications were infected after software developers were lured into using a compromised version of Apple’s developer tool kit, according to researchers at Alibaba Mobile Security, a mobile antivirus division of Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.

The list of recently compromised iPhone and iPad offerings includesTencent Holdings Ltd.’s popular mobile chat app WeChat, Uber-like car-hailing app Didi Kuaidi, and a Spotify-like music app from Internet portal NetEase Inc.

The attack affected more than three dozen apps in all, according to U.S.-based cybersecurity firm Palo Alto Networks Inc.

The infected apps can transmit information about a user’s device, prompt fake alerts that could be used to steal passwords to Apple’s iCloud service, and read and write information on the user’s clipboard, according to researchers.

Apple didn’t have an immediate comment.

In separate statements posted to social media over the weekend, Tencent, Didi Kuadi Joint Co. and NetEase said their applications had been compromised but said no sensitive customer information had been lost.

It is unusual for malware to spread through Apple’s App Store, which typically subjects apps to stringent reviews. In a blog post Thursday, Palo Alto Networks said the attack was the first of its type directed at Apple’s iOS mobile operating system. Chinese anticensorship activist group Greatfire.org called it “the most widespread and significant spread of malware” in the app store’s history.

Other apps found infected with the malware include those belonging to state-run mobile carrier China Unicom, and 12306, the country’s official train-booking website, researchers said. China Unicom and China’s railway bureau did not immediately respond to faxed requests for comment Sunday.

It wasn’t clear Sunday how the infected apps made it past Apple’s screening process, or whether the breach had resulted in any user information being stolen, though researchers said millions of devices could have been exposed based on the popularity of the apps in question.

WeChat has more than 500 million active users, according to Tencent. It isn’t clear how many use devices from Apple, which accounts for about 15% of China’s smartphone market, according to researcher IDC.

The hack exploited Chinese developers’ impatience, according to Palo Alto Networks. To write apps for Apple devices, developers have to use a tool kit called Xcode, but downloading the official version from Apple’s website can take a long time in China.

The hackers posted their infected version on a Chinese server, advertising faster downloads, the researchers said. Any app created or altered using the bogus Xcode would then itself become infected with the malware, they said.