Threats and risks in today’s mobile app marketplace
In terms of mobile security, some mobile application (app) platforms, such as Apple’s AppStore, are known to employ strict rules to which application developers are obliged to adhere.
Other mobile app platforms, such as Android’s Google Play, are more flexible with regards to mobile apps. While providing application developers with a programming platform that is optimized for convenience and ease-of-entry into the app marketplace, it is these very qualities that have made Android the most heavily targeted mobile operating system, with Android apps by far the most widely used vehicle for spreading mobile malware.
Apps are one of the driving forces behind today’s smartphone market. Their download to mobile phones makes them an attractive new attack vector for cybercriminals along with other mobile phone attributes: the shortened URL, low security awareness among users, and the ease of copying a mobile webpage’s layout for malicious purposes.
This risk extends to the corporate setting with companies increasingly adopting Bring- Your-Own-Device (BYOD) policies, in which employees’ devices double as platforms for both personal and work-related communications. Apps that intercept a mobile user’s email and phone communications for example, may gain access to corporate communications, as well.
Types of Rogue App Payloads
According to a research study on Android malware conducted by the Department of Computer Science at North Carolina State University, 86% of Android mobile-malware payloads are repackaged with legitimate apps and are not standalone, making their detection more difficult. The same study found that many others piggyback on genuine app updates to remain undetected.
The payloads these apps install after being downloaded to a device vary widely, and can include:
- SMS Sniffers. Apps that covertly collect SMS text messages, including passwords sent to users’ handsets, and forward this information to a remote drop point. Some of these include other stealth features to avoid raising the user’s suspicion, for example, functionality that turns off the alarm sound when new text messages are received and hides all incoming messages
- Premium dialers. Apps that install themselves on the user’s handset and start dialing phone numbers or sending dummy text messages to premium-rate service numbers. This type of operation requires the setup of a bogus merchant, along with a fraudulent merchant ID through which cybercriminals can collect funds unwittingly siphoned out of user’s accounts. Handset owners would only become aware of the scam when seeing their bill the following month
- SEO enhancers. Apps that repeatedly access a certain website, or websites, to increase their rankings in search engine’s results
- Ransomware. Apps that lock a user’s handset and demand payment from users in return for relinquishing control of the mobile device
- Spyware. Apps that send the attacker or spy (via a remote drop point) information garnered from a victim’s device including GPS data, intercepted calls and text messages, and phone contacts
- Botnet clients / Bridgeheads. Apps that communicate with a cybercriminal via a command & control (C&C) server. These may be used as infrastructure for further malware downloads, much like ready-made PC botnets whose infected systems await to download banker Trojans or other malware pushed from the C&C server. These payloads act as a bridgehead by giving the perpetrator an initial foothold on the compromised device. The payload opens a port on the device, and listens for new commands issued from the fraudster’s C&C point. Later on, an encrypted payload may be downloaded to the user’s device
Android apps and their exploitation
At the end of H2 2012, Google announced that the number of devices running Android has reached 400 million, representing 59% of the world’s smartphone market. And to date, Android’s open source code platform has led to the publication of over 600,000 mobile apps. Android’s source code is based on the Java programming language, and its ease of use and low publisher entry fee has made it the most widely targeted mobile platform by malware developers, and the most widely attacked by today’s Trojans. The increased risk for Android app users has already led several anti-virus companies to release AV software for Android-run devices.
A Secure Venue for Apps
The official venue for Android applications is called “Google Play” (formerly known as “Android Market”). By default, each handset running Android is configured to exclusively allow the installation of apps downloaded from Google Play, and to block installation of apps downloaded from any other venue. This is to ensure a minimal level of security.
Downloading apps from Google Play provides an extra security benefit to Android users, as the store provides a “Remote Application Removal” feature, which allows apps that are retrospectively identified by Google as being malicious to be removed from relevant users’ handsets.
Another important security feature added to Google Play is “Google Bouncer,” which scans new apps, acting as a gatekeeper to keep out those identified as malicious.
Despite Android’s default Google-Play-only settings, Android users can still choose to install apps from venues other than Google Play by manually changing their devices’ security settings. Aware of the security issues this may raise, Android users are presented with a warning message when selecting this option.
Android App Permissions
As a second security measure, prior to the installation of an Android app on most Android-based OSs, the app requests certain system permissions, all which have to be approved before the app can be installed on the device. Whereas legitimate apps normally request only one or two permissions, rogue apps are known to request a long list of permissions before installing themselves.
Currently, this is the main security obstacle for rogue Android apps, which some Trojan coders have managed to bypass through socially engineered schemes. For example, RSA has previously detected a mobile-malware app (SMS sniffer), which presented itself as security software. The app requested nine different permissions, including permission to boot the handset, change system settings, and send text messages. Unsurprisingly, the app was offered from a standalone domain not affiliated with any app store.
Today, the payload app may remain on a device even after the host app (with which it was downloaded) has been removed. This makes initial detection and removal of the app from the app store that proffers it even more crucial.
As with PC-based malware, educating consumers to raise awareness of today’s mobile threats and urging them to take precautions against rogue apps, will be of paramount importance to mitigating mobile threats in years to come.
Phishing Attacks per Month
In August, 49,488 unique phishing attacks were identified by RSA, marking a 17% decrease from July. The bulk of this decrease is a result of fewer phishing campaigns launched against European financial institutions which have accounted for significant spikes in recent months.
Number of Brands Attacked
In August, 290 brands were subject to phishing attacks, marking a 20% increase from July. This considerable increase shows that cybercriminals are expanding their phishing targets wider, to new organizations and new industries not targeted in recent months. More than half of the brands affected by phishing in August were targeted by more than five phishing attacks.
US Bank Types Attacked
In the U.S. financial sector, nationwide banks experienced a 7% decrease in phishing attacks. However, brands in this segment continue to be most targeted by phishing attacks, hit by two out of every three attacks in August.
Top Countries by Attack Volume
In August, the UK continued to get hit by the majority of worldwide phishing attack volume for the sixth consecutive month, accounting for about 70% of all global phishing volume. The U.S. and Canada continued to remain second and third on the list.
Top Countries by Attacked Brands
In August, the U.S., UK and Australia were the top three countries whose brands were most affected by phishing, targeted by 45% of global phishing attacks during the month.
Top Hosting Countries
The U.S. hosted the vast majority of phishing attacks in August with 80%, followed by Canada, the UK and Germany.
Previous RSA Online Fraud Report Summaries:
- The RSA August 2012 Online Fraud Report Summary here.
- The RSA July 2012 Online Fraud Report Summary here.
- The RSA June 2012 Online Fraud Report Summary here.
- The RSA April 2012 Online Fraud Report Summary here.
- The RSA March 2012 Online Fraud Report Summary here.
- The RSA February 2012 Online Fraud Report Summary here.
- The RSA January 2012 Online Fraud Report Summary is here.
- The RSA December 2011 Online Fraud Report Summary is here.
- The RSA November 2011 Online Fraud Report Summary is here.
- The RSA October 2011 Online Fraud Report Summary is here.
- The RSA September 2011 Online Fraud Report Summary is here.