Fake Android Security Tools Harvest User Data

Thursday, January 04, 2018

Ionut Arghire


Tens of Android applications masquerading as security tools were found bombarding users with ads, tracking their location, and secretly harvesting user data, Trend Micro reports.

A total of 36 such applications were found in Google Play in early December, all of which executed the aforementioned unwanted behavior. The applications were posing as security utilities like Security Defender, Security Keeper, Smart Security, Advanced Boost, and more.

The offending applications, the researchers discovered, advertised a variety of capabilities, including scanning, cleaning junk, saving battery, cooling the CPU, locking apps, message filtering, WiFi security, and the like.

When first launched, the apps would hide from the device launcher’s list of applications and would also remove their shortcuts from the device screen. Thus, users would only see the notifications pushed by the apps, which would normally be alarmist security warnings and pop-up windows.

The apps were designed to hide their presence only on specific devices. They would not exhibit such behavior on Google Nexus 6P, Xiaomi MI 4LTE, ZTE N958St, and LGE LG-H525n, most likely because the tactic would not work on these devices or because they wanted to avoid additional scrutiny from Google Play.

Once up and running, the apps would bombard users with “security” notifications and other messages. However, most of the “detection” results displayed in the notifications are false, such as the reporting of all newly installed apps as being suspicious.

Some of these notifications would prompt users to take action on supposedly detected issues on the device. When the user clicks to perform the action, the app would display a fake animation to trick the user into believing that the app is working as intended.

While sending these notifications, however, the apps would also collect the victim’s private data, including specific location details. The collected data is then sent to a remote server.

In addition to pushing said notifications, the applications would also display advertisements to the user, in various different scenarios: after a notification to unlock the device screen or after the user is prompted to connect a charger.

Almost every user action triggers an ad, which suggests the apps were designed mainly for ad display and click fraud.

The security researchers also noticed that users are asked to sign and agree to a EULA (end-user license agreement), where details on the information gathered and used by the app are included. However, because the collection and transmission of personal data is not related to their functionality, these apps are still considered abusive.

These apps can upload to a remote server user information, details on the installed apps, information on attachments, user operational information, and data on activated events.

Additionally, the apps were observed collecting the Android ID, Mac address, IMSI, information about the OS, brand and model of the device, device specifics, language, location information, data on installed apps, and information on what permissions are granted or not.

Google has been informed on the behavior of these applications and has already removed them from Google Play.

Related: Google to Warn Android Users on Apps Collecting Data

Related: Majority of Android Apps Contain Embedded User-Tracking: Report


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