According to AV-Comparatives, an independent testing organization, there are significant differences in the level of protection provided by mobile security solutions. However, even the least secure of them are still far better than questionable apps that impersonate security applications in order to display ads to users. Thirty-five such applications have recently been discovered in the Google Play official Android app store.
These apps have Google Play statistics showing a minimum of over six million installs, cumulatively. However, not all those were necessarily real installations, it is possilbe that many were bot downloads posting fake reviews to improve the ratings for the app.
All 35 apps have been flagged by ESET and eventually removed from the store.
In addition to annoying their victims with ads, disguising these apps as security software has some serious negative side effects, too. In mimicking basic security functions – in fact, they all act as very primitive security checkers relying on a few trivial hardcoded rules – they often detect legitimate apps as malicious. And last but not least, they create a false sense of security in the victims, which might expose them to real risks from malicious apps that are not detected as such.
ESET’s analysis has shown that among these 35 apps, only a handful stand out for their specific features: one app is not completely free as it offers a paid upgrade; one app has implemented a primitive, easily bypassed, app-locker manager; another app flags other apps from this group as dangerous by default; and finally, one misuses ESET’s branding.
In order to stay under the radar, all the shady ad-displaying apps mimic actual mobile security solutions. However, their ‘detection mechanisms’ are incomplete and very primitive, which makes them easy to bypass and prone to false positives.
Our research into these questionable apps has shown that their ‘detection mechanisms’ can be divided into four categories. These mechanisms are identical or almost identical across the whole set of apps.
1) Package name whitelist & blacklist
These whitelists features popular apps such as Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Skype and others. The ‘blacklists’ contains far too few items to be considered security functionality at all.
2) Permissions blacklist
All apps (including legitimate ones) are flagged if they require some of the listed permissions that are considered dangerous, such as send and receive SMS, access location data, access the camera, etc.
3) Source whitelist
All apps but those from the official Android store, Google Play, are flagged – even if they are completely benign.
4) Activities blacklist
All apps that contain any of the blacklisted activities: that is, parts of applications. This mainly concerns some ad-displaying activities.
Flagged are all apps that contain any of the blacklisted activities, i.e., packages of application that are used in an application. These packages can handle additional functionalities (mainly some ad-displaying activities).
While there is nothing wrong with the idea of activity blacklisting, the implementation in these questionable apps is rather sloppy. For example, Google Ads is included in the blacklist despite the fact that it is a legitimate service. On top of being legitimate, this service is implemented in all of the shady apps we analyzed.
Additional security “functionality”
Some of the questionable security apps are capable of protecting a user’s apps with a password or a pattern locker. The idea behind this seemingly useful feature is to provide the user with another layer of security in selected apps.
However, due to insecure implementation, this feature also fails to provide true security to the user.
The problem is that relevant information is not stored safely on the device – instead of using encryption, which is common baseline practice in cybersecurity, these apps store the names of locked apps and the passwords to unlock them as plaintext.
This means that the data can be accessed after the device is rooted.
Besides compromising the unencrypted data by rooting the phone, there is another way to bypass the app lock. An attacker with physical access to the device can change the app-locking password without knowing the old one!
Having a security solution installed in an Android phone is definitely a good thing. However, not all apps featuring “security” or “antivirus” in their name do what the name promises. Before installing a security solution, think twice: is it really a tool you can safely rely on?
The 35 pseudo-security apps described in this article are not, say, ransomware or other hardcore malware. The only harm they do is displaying annoying ads, making false-positive detections and giving the victim a false sense of security. However, those millions of unwary users who downloaded them could easily have ended up downloading true malware in some similar disguise.
Instead of shady apps with flashy names and icons and outlandish, unsubstantiated promises, seek a reputable security solution. And which one to choose? An independent test by a well-respected testing organization might help.
Year after year Mobile World Congress (MWC) takes place in Barcelona, Spain. It is an event that brings together almost every vendor related to the mobile industry to show off their shiny new gadgets, apps and services in our ever-increasingly-connected world.
One of the hot topics surrounding this world at MWC 2018 was 5G — the next generation of mobile connectivity.
What is 5G and how will it affect us?
If we look back at previous incarnations of mobile networks, 1G, 2G and so on, there have been major changes to the technology. The next generation, 5G, delivers greater speed and lower latency, but also has the advantage of being able to connect many more devices concurrently. This is one of the reasons why MWC has gone from being just a show promoting smartphone manufacturers and operators to a gathering of companies showing off connected world devices that could benefit from being connected to a 5G network.
The reality is that none of the existing technologies will disappear anytime soon, in fact the speed that can be achieved on the existing network are up to 1.2Gbps. So, asking the sales representatives in a phone shop about a new 5G handset will probably have them wondering what you’re talking about.
The existing infrastructure for 4G relies on cell towers/masts, typically with reasonable distances between them, whereas 5G is based on smaller, more frequent cells. The smaller cells help deliver the additional bandwidth and lower latency as the network becomes more distributed. The speeds are reportedly able to deliver 20Gbps with just 1ms latency.
Any new networks require licenses, funding and significant effort to introduce them. In the US, AT&T claims it will be the first company with a 5G network, that will cover 12 cities by the end of 2018 and aimed at the mobile phone market. Verizon is taking a different approach and intends on implementing 5G to compete with existing home internet service providers, and with the speed and capacity available on a 5G network this could be a very competitive offering.
Many exhibition halls at MWC had devices designed for the smart city, driverless cars, smart bandages that track your healing, through to virtual reality gaming.
While faster speed is a result of the improved technologies, it is the low latency and capacity that will enable these technologies to deliver a world where just about everything could be connected. The need for capacity is compounded once the connected devices start talking to each other. For example, the future driverless car may be able to communicate with other cars, traffic monitoring, or sensors on the roads and take actions based on the environment around it.
While some 5G smartphone handsets may start to appear on shelves in 2018, we should expect the main vendors to start offering them in 2019.
The rollout of 5G is moving quicker in some regions than others, as already discussed, carriers in the US see competitive advantage and have already announced their plans. Other countries that have openly stated their commitment to early adoption of 5G are China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and Norway, and I am sure this list will grow. In Europe, commitment from both regulators and financiers for the new networks is slower. This could be seen as a competitive disadvantage, or you could view this as sensibly waiting to allow others to experience the difficulties of early adopter first.
As with any new technology there are security considerations. Providers of services will need to combat the expected evolution of advanced malware that will accompany the new 5G infrastructure and implement threat prevention services and solutions that deliver security through layers, including machine learning, to deal with the increased network performance and capacity. Threat intelligence and pro-active security measures are essential components for any device or service being developed to utilize 5G, secure by design.
It is important to remember that understanding the psychology and mindset of the cybercriminal is also important, and for this, deep research by experts in the security field will help the industry predict where the attackers may see the next opportunity. So, while 5G will move us quicker, the benefit of added speed will have a cost and means that for the time being the human component in maintaining safer technology remains crucial.