Mobile app developers “duped” into distributing data-scraping malware: NICTA

The surge in mobile malware has led many to condemn developers' poor security practices, yet recent NICTA research suggests that – even though data-stealing is ubiquitous among both paid and free Android applications – many mobile application developers are in fact being “duped” into incorporating data-stealing routines into their applications.

A methodical analysis of Android applications and source code found that all of the top 100 paid and non-paid apps in Australia were collecting personal information, with 60 percent of the apps incorporating some sort of tracking library and 20 percent of the apps featuring more than three different tracking libraries.

While many have blamed developers for their poor security, NICTA mobile systems research group leader, Aruna Seneviratne, who leads the organisation's Networks Research Group, told CSO Australia that many tracking libraries were inadvertently added when developers incorporated third-party libraries into their mobile apps.

“In most cases app developers just use third-party libraries and don't know what's in them,” he said. “They're not being malicious for the sake of being malicious; they are just being duped into doing a thing that collects a lot of information.”

And collect they do. Apps analysed by the team – whose paper 'early detection of spam mobile apps' was accepted for presentation at the recent WWW 2015 conference in Florence, Italy – were siphoning all kinds of personal information off of users' mobile devices, often sending it to enlarge what have become massive databases of personal preferences and behavioural modeling.

“It's amazing how much information each of those apps collects,” he said, “and the scary thing is that most of them actually go to a small number of sources – which means these guys can actually infer a lot of information about you. They have a very good idea of who you are and what you're doing – and they are cross-matching the information they collect.”

Ever more-clever data-siphoning routines were making data collection richer all the time, with many Android apps now being designed with libraries that collect information about nearby Wi-Fi access points and can correctly extrapolate the user's location 90 percent of the time.

Seneviratne blamed Google's relatively lax app-approval process for the proliferation of such apps, which join the malware-laden apps that by the team's figures account for around 3 percent of all Google Play Store apps.

Recognising that developers are often as clueless as users about the extent of the data collection going on, the team has proposed an app-rating system that will give consumers a better idea of what they're enabling by downloading and installing a particular app.

Read more: The week in security: Android apps collecting your location data, home routers hit by drive-by malware

A basic prototype has already been developed and a pilot site is expected to be up and running by the fourth quarter of this year. The service, which rates apps on criteria such as privacy and security, will be available to third parties as a Web service that Seneviratne hopes will eventually help it gain traction on app-rating and other sites.

“We've been working to come up with a scheme that is similar to the energy-ratings system that you have for electrical appliances,” he said, noting that the site will also seek to boost developers' security awareness by correlating app ratings “to let consumers know they can download an alternate app that has the same functionality but a higher security rating”.

Israeli developer-tools firm Checkmarx has taken its own approach to improving developers' security skills, recently learning extensive lessons as hackers worked to manipulate its Game of Hacks security application – which is now under development to be sold to large corporates for developer training and testing.

This article is brought to you by Enex TestLab, content directors for CSO Australia.

Read more: Surveillance laws driving companies to limit data collection, developers to boost security

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Tags Wi-Fimobile malwaredata collectionnictamobile appCheckmarxCSO AustraliaAndroid applicationsdata-scraping malwareAruna Seneviratne

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