What motivates most of the world’s most advanced mobile malware authors? One word: money.
Mobile Threats Motivated by Profit, 2004-2011
“The most credible threat is coming from hackers who want to profit monetarily with their attacks. And right now we’re seeing more profit-motivated mobile malware than ever before,” F-Secure’s Chief Research Officer Mikko Hypponen said, in the Mobile Threat Report Q4 2011 (Available here).
Since 2009, more than half of mobile malware has been profit-motivated. Do you remember what was happening in the mobile world around 2009? The Android mobile platform emerged and has since replaced Symbian as the mobile OS most often targeted by mobile malware.
From the Mobile Threat Report: “Android malware continues to expand rapidly in the fourth quarter of 2011, with malware originating from Russia forming a significant presence in the scene.”
Mobile Threats by Platform, 2004-2011
You’ll notice that while the iOS platform that powers Apple devices has expanded exponentially but it has not experienced a boom in new malware targeting it. F-Secure Labs has credited the security approvals required for placement in Apple’s AppStore for keeping malicious apps to a minimum. Mobile malware that affects jailbroken iPhones but the Labs does not expect an iOS malware boom.
What does a boom in malware look like?
You have all heard the classic mantra of computer security: use common sense, patch your system and install antivirus. That is still excellent advice, but the world is changing. We used to repeat that mantra over and over to the end users. Now we are entering a new era where we have to stress the importance of updates to manufacturers. We did recently write about how Chrysler reacted fairly quickly to stop Jeeps from being controlled remotely. They made a new firmware version for the vehicles, but didn’t have a good channel to distribute the update. Stagefright on Android demonstrates a similar problem, but potentially far more widespread. Let’s first take a look at Stagefright. What is it really? Stagefright is the name of a module deep inside the Android system. This module is responsible for interpreting video files and playing them on the device. The Stagefright bug is a vulnerability that allows and attacker to take over the system with specially crafted video content. Stagefright is used to automatically create previews of content received through many channels. This is what makes the Stagefright bug really bad. Anyone who can send you a message containing video can potentially break into your Android device without any actions from you. You can use common sense and not open fishy mail attachments, but that doesn’t work here. Stagefright takes a look at inbound content automatically in many cases so common sense won't help. Even worse. There’s not much we can do about it, except wait for a patch from the operator or phone vendor. And many users will be waiting in vain. This is because of how the Android system is developed and licensed. Google is maintaining the core Linux-based system and releasing it under an open license. Phone vendors are using Android, but often not as it comes straight from Google. They try to differentiate and modifies Android to their liking. Google reacted quickly and made a fix for the Stagefright bug. This fix will be distributed to their own Nexus-smartphones soon. But it may not be that simple for the other vendors. They need to verify that the patch is compatible with their customizations, and releasing it to their customers may be a lengthy process. If they even want to patch handsets. Some vendors seems to see products in the cheap smartphone segment as disposable goods. They are not supposed to be long-lived and post-sale maintenance is just a cost. Providing updates and patches would just postpone replacement of the phone, and that’s not in the vendor’s interest. This attitude explains why several Android vendors have very poor processes and systems for sending out updates. Many phones will never be patched. Let’s put this into perspective. Android is the most widespread operating system on this planet. 48 % of the devices shipped in 2014 were Androids (Gartner). And that includes both phones, tablets, laptops and desktop computers. There’s over 1 billion active Android devices (Google’s device activation data). Most of them are vulnerable to Stagefright and many of them will never receive a patch. This is big! Let’s however keep in mind that there is no widespread malware utilizing this vulnerability at the time of writing. But all the ingredients needed to make a massive and harmful worm outbreak are there. Also remember that the bug has existed in Android for over five years, but not been publically known until now. It is perfectly possible that intelligence agencies are utilizing it silently for their own purposes. But can we do anything to protect us? That’s the hard question. This is not intended to be a comprehensive guide, but it is however possible to give some simple advice. You can stop worrying if you have a really old device with an Android version lower than 2.2. It’s not vulnerable. Google Nexus devices will be patched soon. A patch has also been released for devices with the CyanogenMod system. The privacy-optimized BlackPhone is naturally a fast-mover in cases like this. Other devices? It’s probably best to just google for “Stagefright” and the model or vendor name of your device. Look for two things. Information about if and when your device will receive an update and for instructions about how to tweak settings to mitigate the threat. Here’s an example. Safe surfing, Micke Image by Rob Bulmahn under CC BY 2.0
Whistleblowers have changed the world and there’s still a lot of hidden secrets that the public really should know about. High-profile leakers like Snowden, Manning and Assange are known globally, and are paying a high price for their courage. But only a few are dedicated enough to blow the whistle in public - most leakers want to carry on with their normal lives and remain anonymous. Snowden did no doubt show the way for others, and there are already several who have tried to leak and remain anonymous. That’s not easy and the stakes are high! Which is underlined by the recent news about the feds discovering one leaker. But is it even possible to leak anonymously in this word that in many ways is worse than Orwell’s fictive surveillance nightmare? Let’s list some advice for the case you would like to leak by phone to a journalist. I guess not many of you readers will ever be in a situation where you need this. But read on, this is highly interesting anyway and tells a lot about how our digital word works. Ok, let’s assume the worst case. The secrets you want to leak affects US national security, which means that your enemy is powerful and can use top surveillance against you. Let’s also assume it’s info you have authorized access to. And that you want to talk on the phone to a journalist. Here’s some basic rules and hints that may prevent you from ending up behind bars. First you need to assess how many persons have access to the data. They will all be on a list of suspects, together with you. The shorter the list, the bigger the risk for you. Your mobile phone is a tracking device. The cell phone network knows what base station you are connected to at any time. Other services can record and store even GPS-accurate position data. All this is accessible to the agents and you must make sure it doesn’t reveal you. Needless to say, your own phone does not participate in this project. You need to find out who you should leak to. Never do this research from your own computer because your search history can reveal you. It leaves traces both in your computer and in your user profile at Google (unless you know what you are doing and use privacy tools properly). Do this research from a public computer. Make sure you have never logged in to any personal account from this computer. You need a “burner phone” to do the leaking. This is a phone that can’t be connected to your identity in any way. Here’s some rules for how to use it: It is always switched off with the battery removed when not in use. Just using the power button does not cut power from all parts of the device. It is never switched on in or close to your home. The agents can easily find out what base station it was connected to and turning it on near home can make you more suspected than others. It is never switched on in or close to your vehicle. Base station records for the phone may correlate with traffic cameras storing your registration plate. This is especially important if you have a modern car with a built-in data connection for service monitoring etc. Never user the burner for any other contacts. Even a single call to your spouse creates a record that ties you to the phone. Needless to say, never store any other info in the phone than what you need for this project. You always leave your own phone at home when going out to use the burner phone. Otherwise the agents can see that your own phone “happen” to be in the same base station when the burner is used. Leave your own phone turned ON at home when you go out with the burner. Otherwise you create a recognizable pattern where your own phone turns off and the burner turns on, and vice versa, in a synchronized manner. Leave any other wireless devices at home. Tablets, wireless mobile payment devices, anything else with a radio transmitter. Using a voice changer is necessary especially if the list of suspects is short. Assume that your calls can be recorded and your own voice checked against the recording. Get the burner phone. Scout for a dealer with old-looking or insufficient security cameras located not too close to your home. Remember that the agents may locate the shop where the burner phone was sold, get the security camera recording and compare against the list of suspects. Even better, ask someone else to buy the phone for you. Choose a cheap non-smart prepaid phone with removable battery. Pay cash and make sure you don’t reveal your identity to the seller in any way. Safely destroy any receipts and other paperwork related to the purchase. Think about where to store physical items that can tie you to the leak. Such items are the burner phone and related documents or data media. This is especially important if the list of suspects is short. Storing such items at home, at your workplace or in your vehicle will reveal you if the agents perform a search. Try to find some other place that is safe and can’t be tied to you. Now you are ready to contact the journalist. Be very rigid with the rules for how to use the burner phone. There are also some additional rules for this situation: Dress discreetly to avoid sticking out in surveillance camera footage. Be far enough from home when making the call. Turn the burner on, make the call and turn it off again right away. Avoid public places with surveillance cameras when the burner is on. Do not use your credit card during this trip. Pay cash for everything. Any other personal payment instruments, like public transportation payment cards, is a big no-no as well. You have to assume that journalists dealing with leaks are being watched constantly. Assume that the hunt is on as soon as you have made the first contact. Try to wrap up the project as quickly as possible and minimize the number of times you turn on the burner phone. When you are done, dispose all items related to the leak in a secure way. The trash can of your own house is NOT secure. Dump the phone in the river or put it in a public trash sack far enough from home. The truly paranoid leaker will break the phone with gloves on. The outer shell can contain fingerprints or traces of your DNA and the electronics the traceable phone ID. It’s good to make sure they end up in different places. Huh! That’s a lot to remember. Imagine, all this just for maintaining privacy when making a phone call! But you really need to do it like this if the big boys are after you and you still want to continue as a free citizen. I hope you never need to go through all this, and also that you do it right if you have to. Disclaimer. This text is mainly intended as a demonstration of how intrusive the surveillance society is today. We provide no guarantee that this will be enough to keep you out of jail. If you really plan to become a whistle blower, research the topic thoroughly and get familiar with other sources as well (but remember what I wrote about researching from your own computer). Safe whistle blowing, Micke
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