This is the second article in a 3-part series on mobile malware.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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)?
A little iPhone history was made this month -- a iOS device was infected by just clicking on a link. This sort of attack had previously only worked on devices where the owner had purposely installed a "jailbreak" hack. So before you do anything -- even read the rest of this post -- you should update your iOS software to the latest version of iOS 9, or iOS 10 beta, which has some nice new privacy features. Here's how this historic attack happened, according to The Verge: Earlier this month, an Emirati human rights activist named Ahmed Mansoor got a suspicious text. It promised new details of torture in the country’s state prisons, along with a link to follow if he was interested. If Mansoor had followed the link, it would have jailbroken his phone on the spot and implanted it with malware, capable of logging encrypted messages, activating the microphone and secretly tracking its movements. To our cyber security advisor Erka Koivunen, this is a glaring example of a threat that is not "advanced" -- as in APT, advanced persistent threat. Think about what goes into a real APT. "They do reconnaissance properly and understand what the victim is susceptible to. They have good timing and only create visible noise when it suits their interest," he told us. "And they have a plan B ready in case someone starts snooping their activities." Here, the the most exploitable iPhone vulnerability ever known has now been exposed and patched -- for what? It's a bit baffling to Erka who compares it to throwing "expensive exploits at this guy like kids throwing rocks." You just don't see zero-day vulnerabilities like this -- especially on what had been one of the more secure platforms available -- that often. This has some security researchers thinking: Perverse incentives: Should I take up political activism so I get more interesting 0day sent my way? /me wonders — halvarflake (@halvarflake) August 26, 2016 //platform.twitter.com/widgets.js So, if you haven't already, update now. And if you're involved in politics in *any way* whatsoever, realize that someone will try to hack you -- sooner or later. So beware of those links in strange texts and email attachments in general. [Image by Sean MacEntee via Flickr]
Bitcoin has not only changed the economics of cybercrime by providing crooks with an encrypted, nearly anonymous payment system autonomous from any central bank. It's also changed researchers' ability to track how much money criminals are making. "Bitcoin is based on Blockchain, and Blockchain is a public ledger of transactions. So all Bitcoin transactions are public," explains Mikko Hyppönen, F-Secure's Chief Research Officer. "Now, you don’t know who is who. But we can see money moving around, and we can see the amounts." Every victim of Ransomware -- malware that encrypts files and demands a payment for their release -- is given a unique wallet to transfer money into. Once paid, some ransomware gangs move the bitcoins to a central wallet. "We've been monitoring some of those wallets," Mikko says. "And we see Bitcoins worth millions and millions. We see a lot of money." Watching crooks rake in so much money, tax-free, got him thinking: "I began to wonder if there are in fact cybercrime unicorns." A cybercrime unicorn? (View this as a PDF) A tech unicorn is a privately held tech company valued at more than a billion dollars. Think Uber, AirBNB or Spotify -- only without the investors, the overhead and oversight. (Though the scam is so profitable that some gangs actually have customer service operations that could rival a small startup.) "Can we use this comparison model to cybercrime gangs?" Mikko asks. "We probably can’t." It's simply too hard to cash out. Investors in Uber have people literally begging to buy their stakes in the company. Ransomware gangs, however, have to continually imagine ways to turn their Bitcoin into currency. "They buy prepaid cards and then they sell these cards on Ebay and Craigslist," he says. "A lot of those gangs also use online casinos to launder the money." But even that's not so easy, even if the goal is to sit down at a online table and attempt to lose all your money to another member of your gang. "If you lose large amounts of money you will get banned. So the gangs started using bots that played realistically and still lose – but not as obviously." Law enforcement is well aware of extremely alluring economics of this threat. In 2015, the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center received "2,453 complaints identified as Ransomware with losses of over $1.6 million." In 2016, hardly has a month gone by without a high-profile case like Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center paying 40 Bitcoin, about $17,000 USD at the time, to recover its files. And these are just the cases we're hearing about. The scam is so effective that it seemed that the FBI was recommending that victims actually pay the ransom. But it turned out their answer was actually more nuanced. "The official answer is the FBI does not advise on whether or not people should pay," Sean Sullivan, F-Secure Security Advisor, writes. "But if victims haven’t taken precautions… then paying is the only remaining alternative to recover files." What sort of precautions? For Mikko, the answer obvious. "Backups. If you get hit you restore yesterday’s backup and carry on working. It could be more cumbersome if it’s not just one workstation, if your whole network gets hit. But of course you should always have good, up to date, offline backups. And 'offline' is the key!" What's also obvious is that too few people are prepared when Ransomware hits. Barring any disruptions to the Bitcoin market, F-Secure Labs predicts this threat will likely persist, with even more targeted efforts designed to elicit even greater sums. If you end up in an unfortunate situation when your files are held hostage, remember that you're dealing with someone who thinks of cybercrime as a business. So you can always try to negotiate. What else do you have to lose?
This is really an old problem, but it’s in the headlines again. Pokémon Go is yet another example of a “free” game with a business model based on in-app purchases. These games are also known as F2P, standing for free-to-play. You can start playing, and get hooked, for free. But soon you run into a situation where you can’t proceed without buying virtual stuff in the game. The stuff you buy is virtual but the payment is very real money. This is no doubt a profitable model. Pokémon Go went straight to the top and for example Finland-based Supercell, maker of Clash of Clans, has constantly reported nice profits. This can naturally cause trouble for addicted adults, but the real problems arise when kids get hooked. There are numerous public stories about kids making purchases for hundreds or even thousands of Euros, often without even understanding how much they have spent. And the sinister part is that this can go on for a while until you get the credit card bill, and it’s too late. Your chances to get a refund are somewhere between slim and none. But how can this happen? Let’s take a look at the most common scenarios. Your kid has set up the new device and created the needed account with Apple or Google. Everything is fine until he or she needs an app that isn’t free. You enter your credit card on the kid’s device and make the purchase, but you don’t pay any attention to the security settings. This may give your kid carte blanche to buy anything he or she likes, and you pay the bill. You have entered your credit card but set up the kid’s store account so that a password only you know is required for every purchase. But there are some convenient settings that allow purchases without a password within a limited time window after the password has been entered. Kids learn very quickly to utilize this opportunity. Let’s assume the same setup as in the previous point, but with the correct security settings. Now the password is needed for every purchase. But the store account is still owned by the kid and the password can be reset. The password reset link will be sent to the kid’s mail or phone number. It’s carte blanche again with the new password. Ok, you create an account you own for the kids phone. It’s tied to your mail and phone number, so the password reset trick shouldn’t work anymore. You put down your phone and head for the toilet. Your kid has been waiting for the opportunity and initiates the password reset request. Your phone is there on the table wide open, with the reset link in the mail. You can figure out the rest yourself. And of course the simple alternative. You think the store password on your kid’s device is secret. But in reality it is either too easy to guess or someone has been looking over your shoulder. So there’s many things that can go wrong, but what can we do to avoid it? There are many ways to fight this problem, but this is in my opinion the best approach: Let the kid set up the store account on the device and set own passwords. Just like an adult would use a phone, except that there’s no payment method registered. Never enter your credit card number on the kid’s device. On Android, get familiar with Google Play Family. This feature enables you to purchase stuff for your kid on your own device. On iPhone, send apps or money as gifts. There may be applications that bypass the store and handle credit card transactions directly. This can typically be handled with vouchers or other prepaid payment methods instead. The application usually guides the users and list all supported methods. Let’s also take a look at the hard way. Follow these instructions if you for some reasons must have your credit card registered as a payment method on the kid’s device. Make sure the store is protected with a good password that only you know. Make sure the kid isn’t watching too closely when you enter it. Make sure the store is set up to require the password every time a purchase is made. Make sure the store account is attached to an e-mail only you have access to. Make sure the e-mail password is decent and not known to your kid. Make sure your phone’s security settings are decent. Use a PIN or password your kid doesn’t know and make sure it locks automatically quickly enough. Even better, do not have the e-mail of your kids store account on your phone. Access it through web mail when needed. So this is after all a quite complex issue. There are many variations and other ways to deal with the problem. Did I miss some simple and clever way? Write a comment if you think I did. And finally. Yes, there’s also many ways to lock the kids out of the store completely. This does no doubt solve some problems, but I don’t think it’s a good idea. They will after all live their lives in a world where digital devices and services are as natural as breathing. They deserve the opportunity to start practicing for that right now. Let them browse the store and discover all the fun stuff. And be part of the group and use all the same apps as their friends. Let them have fun with the phone and learn, even if they will learn some things the hard way. Don’t ruin it for them. Safe surfing, Micke