A quick guide to mobile malware (part 2)

This is the second article in a 3-part series on mobile malware.

Why (should I be worried)?

Worm:iOS/Ikee.A changed the phone's wallpaper

Last week I gave a brief summary of the kinds of threats a user might encounter on the smartphones of today. This week’s article is supposed to cover the reasons why a user would worry about mobile malware, so let me give the short answer now:

Usually, mobile malware attacks are motivated by: Bragging rights; money; stealing personal information that can be sold for money. For the user that gets hit by the malware, it means: Losing control over your phone; losing your money; someone else might be using your personal details for who-knows-what.

So let’s assume your phone’s been infected. Just how much should you be worried? Well, that kind of depends on your luck and what kind of malware you’re dealing with.

“Hey folks! Look what I can do!”

Like PC-based malware, the first threats to appear on the phone are often the product of some technically-minded person finding a loophole in the phone’s operating system, writing a program to exploit it, then releasing it to the general public to, basically, prove that it can be done. A prank for bragging rights, more or less. There may also be more subtle motivations involved, but if your phone is on the receiving end, you probably wouldn’t care.

Sometimes, if you’re lucky, that first malicious program doesn’t do anything worse than changing the phone’s wallpaper (Worm:iOS/Ikee.A is a good example here). So, for the user, the cost for the malware creator’s bragging rights is: time spent dealing with the problem and probably a massive headache.

Not a good loss, but bearable. Unfortunately, the next two potential losses for a user hit by mobile malware – money and/or personal data – are more serious.

“Give me back my phone!”

As other attackers get hold of that pioneer program and modify it to be more malicious, the next few versions (or variants) of it usually get more ‘risky’ to the user. If the malware is really malicious, it can alter the phone’s functionality to the point that the device is basically ‘bricked’ – it can’t be used for anything other than a paperweight.

Some examples we saw on the Symbian platform – which, by virtue of being the first widely used smartphone platform, also suffered the most threats – were Cardtrap, Skulls, Romride and Locknut. At this point, if the damage isn’t recoverable, the user is also out by the price of the phone and loss of the data stored on the phone itself. Ouch.

SMSes = $$$

Still, not everyone has to be concerned about data loss, if they have their contacts backed up elsewhere and they don’t keep financial or confidential details on their phone. What if you do, though? Say, you do mobile bank transactions, or store your PINs or account log-in details on the phone? Can an attacker find a way to pull confidential data off the phone?

‘Early generation’ smartphones – for the sake of this article, let’s say they’re the ones that sent data out by WAP  – didn’t give crooks a lot of options for getting hold of data they could make money from.  On these phones, the ‘traditional’ way for crooks to make money was through what amounts to SMS fraud (an example is the Redoc trojan family).

In this kind of scheme, the attackers has to plant a trojan on the device that forces it to send SMS messages to a premium phone number, which can wrack up a high phone bill for the user. Though effective, these attacks tend not to be very widespread, as they are limited by the geographical location and size of the telecom networks and target-able users. If you’re not in the target group, the threat is almost nonexistent.

Stealing data

Nowadays though, ‘new generation’ smartphones – as in ones with fast data connections back up by unlimited or cheap data packages from telco providers, making it convenient for a user to just leave the data connection open – offer a crook more options. Instead of bothering with SMS fraud, they can create malware that find and retrieve specific information stored on the device, which could potentially give far greater returns. Case in point is the very next Ikee variant, Ikee.B, which stole financially-sensitive information stored on the phone.

In this case, the loss is hard to estimate as fortunately, this type of malware isn’t common and the risk they pose is highly individual, depending on what details you store on your phone. It would probably also depend on how the attacker would be able to convert the details stolen into hard cash – sell it off in bulk together with details stolen from others? Find a way to log into a compromised account and withdraw the money?

There’s no ‘standard scenario’ here, so it’s hard for a user to realistically evaluate the fallout of having data stolen off their phone. All that can be reliably said is that personal and financial details are major targets on a PC and they’re probably no less attractive on mobile devices; it’s just that up until now, attackers didn’t have a way to scam these details out of someone on a mobile device.

Going straight for the money

As with PC threats, the main motivation for mobile threats seems to have transitioned from bragging rights to making money. And in a totally unscientific personal observation, it sure seems like mobile malware made that transition much faster than PC threats did. As a very rough comparison:

  • Brain, the first PC-based malware, came out in 1986; it was only in the early 2000’s that profit-motivated malwares became prevalent (though there doesn’t seem to be any agreement on which was the first).
  • By comparison, the iOS was launched in early 2007; its first trojan (of the bragging rights variety) came out almost exactly a year later; and shortly thereafter came Ikee.B, which was more malicious (but only on jailbroken iPhones).
  • The Android OS was launched in late 2007; its first trojan was also the first to try an SMS fraud scam, and it appeared in August of 2010.

It’s early days yet for mobile threats so we really don’t know how they are going to evolve.

It would probably be a safe bet to say that there are going to be more new threats though, and not all of them are going to be as benign as a plastering on a Rick Astley wallpaper.

Next week, the last in this series – How (can I protect myself)?

More posts from this topic

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5 things you’d know about password security if you had time to care

If you use the internet like a normal person, password management is a pain. It doesn't have to be that way. Over the last two months through Triberr, we invited a group of bloggers we enjoy to work as brand ambassadors on behalf of our password manager KEY, which we built to make securing your accounts simple. They tried KEY out and shared their experience with their readers. By watching them explain what they learned we were reminded that there are some password truths we take for granted. Here are five important points about passwords they made that everyone needs to know. 1. No one changes their passwords when there's a hack. It's constant headline, "Passwords breached. Change all your passwords!" Not only do we have to put up with our trust being breached, as Breakthrough Radio's Michele Price pointed out, we have to take the time to change all our passwords ourselves. If you're a regular reader of Safe and Savvy, you know that experts aren't being sincere when they tell you to change all your passwords. “The dirty little secret of security experts is that when there’s a data breach and they recommend to ‘change all your passwords,’ even they don’t follow their own advice, because they don’t need to,” our Security Advisor Sean Sullivan told us. The only reason you'd need to change all your passwords is if you made a few basic mistakes. 2. Our password choices can make us vulnerable. "You should have diversified your usernames and passwords in the first place," Harri Hiljander, our Product Director or Personal Identity Protection, told LeadersWest's Jim Dougherty. If you reuse passwords, every hack or breach is exponentially worse. But still people reuse passwords over and over for a pretty obvious reason. 3. It's too hard to come up with and remember strong, unique passwords for all our important accounts. Our bloggers presented the suggestions for generating strong unique passwords our Labs offered -- and to be honest, the advice can overwhelming. But if you're going to come up something that protects your financial details, it's essential. That's why the bloggers liked KEY's ability to generate strong passwords for them. "I think this is the best feature of all," World of My Imagination's Nicole Michelle wrote. Forget all the rules. Now you don't have to worry if your password is going to end up on a list of ones you should never use. 4. Password security is especially important to people who work online -- and who doesn't? If you spend your time building up an online publication your readers trust, the integrity of your site is priceless, as we learned from WhyNotMom.com. Sean advised our bloggers to sure that their WordPress -- or any blogging platform -- password isn't being reused anywhere else. In addition to the three things everyone needs to do -- back up everything, patch all your software and use updated security software -- he also advised them to make sure they keep a watchful eye on all their blog plug-ins. Keep them updates AND keep an eye out for plug-ins that are no longer being updated. Get rid of those. 5. You should have at least one email account you don't share with anyone. Identity management gets harder and harder as our usernames become more public. Everyone gets by now -- we hope -- that you should never reuse pairings of logins and passwords for your crucial accounts. But there are extra steps you can take, as our bloggers learned from our KEY experts. "Create a new email address for online accounts, don’t share it with ANYONE." Chelsea from Me and My Handful wrote about our Labs' advice to keep your login names secret. "So smart, and yet, we don’t do it." But all this knowledge is useless if you don't have a system to keep your passwords secure. Set up a system then pick a password manager -- we suggest you try KEY for free, of course --and stick with it. Cheers, Jason [Image via kris krüg via Flickr ]

Oct 24, 2014

No, we do not need to carry black boxes

The recent statements from FBI director James Comey is yet another example of the authorities’ opportunistic approach to surveillance. He dislikes the fact that mobile operating systems from Google and Apple now come with strong encryption for data stored on the device. This security feature is naturally essential when you lose your device or if you are a potential espionage target. But the authorities do not like it as it makes investigations harder. What he said was basically that there should be a method for authorities to access data in mobile devices with a proper warrant. This would be needed to effectively fight crime. Going on to list some hated crime types, murder, child abuse, terrorism and so on. And yes, this might at first sound OK. Until you start thinking about it. Let’s translate Comey’s statement into ordinary non-obfuscated English. This is what he really said: “I, James Comey, director of FBI, want every person world-wide to carry a tracking device at all times. This device shall collect the owner’s electronic communications and be able to open cloud services where data is stored. The content of these tracking devices shall on request be made available to the US authorities. We don’t care if this weakens your security, and you shouldn’t care because our goals are more important than your privacy.” Yes, that’s what we are talking about here. The “tracking devices” are of course our mobile phones and other digital gadgets. Our digital lives are already accurate mirrors of our actual lives. Our gadgets do not only contain actual data, they are also a gate to the cloud services because they store passwords. Granting FBI access to mobile devices does not only reveal data on the device. It also opens up all the user’s cloud services, regardless of if they are within US jurisdiction or not. In short. Comey want to put a black box in the pocket of every citizen world-wide. Black boxes that record flight data and communications are justified in cockpits, not in ordinary peoples’ private lives. But wait. What if they really could solve crimes this way? Yes, there would probably be a handful of cases where data gathered this way is crucial. At least enough to make fancy PR and publically show how important it is for the authorities to have access to private data. But even proposing weakening the security of commonly and globally used operating systems is a sign of gross negligence against peoples’ right to security and privacy. The risk is magnitudes bigger than the upside. Comey was diffuse when talking about examples of cases solved using device data. But the history is full of cases solved *without* data from smart devices. Well, just a decade ago we didn’t even have this kind of tracking devices. And the police did succeed in catching murderers and other criminals despite that. You can also today select to not use a smartphone, and thus drop the FBI-tracker. That is your right and you do not break any laws by doing so. Many security-aware criminals are probably operating this way, and many more would if Comey gets what he wants. So it’s very obvious that the FBI must have capability to investigate crime even without turning every phone into a black box. Comey’s proposal is just purely opportunistic, he wants this data because it exists. Not because he really needs it.   Safe surfing, Micke    

Oct 17, 2014
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Who is waging digital war on the Hong Kong protesters?

Is this China's digital riot police? A "particularly remarkable advanced persistent threat" has been compromising websites in Hong Kong and Japan for months, according to Volexity. The pro-democratic sites that have been infected include "Alliance for True Democracy – Hong Kong" and "People Power – Hong Kong" along with several others identified with the Occupy Central and Umbrella Revolution student movements behind the massive protests against the Chinese government. Visitors to the sites are being targeted by malware designed for "exploitation, compromise, and digital surveillance". In an analysis on our Labs Blog, Micke notes that it's possible that cybercriminals could be simply piggybacking on the news without any political motivation. However, the Remote Access Trojans (RATs) being used could provide serious advantages to political opponents of the movement. "A lot of the visitors on these sites are involved in the movement somehow, either as leaders or at grassroot level," he writes. "Their enemy could gain a lot of valuable information by planting RATs even in a small fraction of these peoples’ devices." And even leaders aren't compromised, the publicity around the attack will drive users away from the sites. This is a tactic that would definitely benefit those who want these see protests to end ASAP.  And it would be a far more effective tactic if not for social networks like Twitter that can be accessed to plan resistance,even if the government blocks them -- as long as you have a VPN solution like our Freedome. If the goal is to cripple the protests by targeting protesters, "you don’t have to be a genius to figure out that China is the prime suspect," Micke writes. The significance a state-sponsored RAT attack -- or even a state-condoned attack carried out by privateers -- would be immense. Criminals use malware to target individuals, businesses and governments themselves. Government-sponsored cyberattacks on citizens practicing civil disobedience could be considered an escalation beyond even likely government-sponsored surveillance malware like Flame, which forces businesses to consider malware attacks from their own governments. Over the last year we've learned just how far suspicious governments will go to play defense against internet users who haven't been accused of any crime. Now we're seeing hints that a government may be willing to play offense too.

Oct 15, 2014