Security analysts recently discovered surveillance malware in some inexpensive smartphones that run the Android operating system (OS) software. The malware secretly transmits information about the device owner and usage to servers in China. The surveillance malware was installed in the phones' firmware. The New York Times reported:
"... you can get a smartphone with a high-definition display, fast data service and, according to security contractors, a secret feature: a backdoor that sends all your text messages to China every 72 hours. Security contractors recently discovered pre-installed software in some Android phones... International customers and users of disposable or prepaid phones are the people most affected by the software... The Chinese company that wrote the software, Shanghai Adups Technology Company, says its code runs on more than 700 million phones, cars and other smart devices. One American phone manufacturer, BLU Products, said that 120,000 of its phones had been affected and that it had updated the software to eliminate the feature."
"... provides professional Firmware Over-The-Air (FOTA) update services. The company offers a cloud-based service, which includes cloud hosts and CDN service, as well as allows manufacturers to update all their device models. It serves smart device manufacturers, mobile operators, and semiconductor vendors worldwide."
Firmware is a special type of software store in read-only memory (ROM) chips that operates a device, including how it controls, monitors, and manipulates data within a device. Kryptowire, a security firm, discovered the malware. The Kryptowire report identified:
"... several models of Android mobile devices that contained firmware that collected sensitive personal data about their users and transmitted this sensitive data to third-party servers without disclosure or the users' consent. These devices were available through major US-based online retailers (Amazon, BestBuy, for example)... These devices actively transmitted user and device information including the full-body of text messages, contact lists, call history with full telephone numbers, unique device identifiers including the International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) and the International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI). The firmware could target specific users and text messages matching remotely defined keywords. The firmware also collected and transmitted information about the use of applications installed on the monitored device, bypassed the Android permission model, executed remote commands with escalated (system) privileges, and was able to remotely reprogram the devices.
The firmware that shipped with the mobile devices and subsequent updates allowed for the remote installation of applications without the users' consent and, in some versions of the software, the transmission of fine-grained device location information... Our findings are based on both code and network analysis of the firmware. The user and device information was collected automatically and transmitted periodically without the users' consent or knowledge. The collected information was encrypted with multiple layers of encryption and then transmitted over secure web protocols to a server located in Shanghai. This software and behavior bypasses the detection of mobile anti-virus tools because they assume that software that ships with the device is not malware and thus, it is white-listed."
So, the malware was powerful, sophisticated, and impossible for consumers to detect.
This incident provides several reminders. First, there were efforts earlier this year by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to force Apple to build "back doors" into its phones for law enforcement. Reportedly, it is unclear what specific law enforcement or intelligence services utilized the data streams produced by the surveillance malware. It is probably wise to assume that the Ministry of State Security, China's intelligence agency, had or has access to data streams.
Second, the incident highlights supply chain concerns raised in 2015 about computer products manufactured in China. Third, the incident indicates how easily consumers' privacy can be compromised by data breaches during a product's supply chain: manufacturing, assembly, transport, and retail sale.
Fourth, the incident highlights Android phone security issues raised earlier this year. We know from prior reports that manufacturers and wireless carriers don't provide OS updates for all Android phones. Fifth, the incident highlights the need for automakers and software developers to ensure the security of both connected cars and driverless cars.
Sixth, the incident raises questions about how and what, if anything, President Elect Donald J. Trump and his incoming administration will do about this trade issue with China. The Trump-Pence campaign site stated about trade with China:
"5. Instruct the Treasury Secretary to label China a currency manipulator.
6. Instruct the U.S. Trade Representative to bring trade cases against China, both in this country and at the WTO. China's unfair subsidy behavior is prohibited by the terms of its entrance to the WTO.
7. Use every lawful presidential power to remedy trade disputes if China does not stop its illegal activities, including its theft of American trade secrets - including the application of tariffs consistent with Section 201 and 301 of the Trade Act of 1974 and Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962..."
This incident places consumers in a difficult spot. According to the New York Times:
"Because Adups has not published a list of affected phones, it is not clear how users can determine whether their phones are vulnerable. “People who have some technical skills could,” Mr. Karygiannis, the Kryptowire vice president, said. “But the average consumer? No.” Ms. Lim [an attorney that represents Adups] said she did not know how customers could determine whether they were affected."
Until these supply-chain security issues get resolved it is probably wise for consumers to inquire before purchase where their Android phone was made. There are plenty of customer service sites for existing Android phone owners to determine the country their device was made in. Example: Samsung phone info.
Should consumers avoid buying Android phones made in China or Android phones with firmware made in China? That's a decision only you can make for yourself. Me? When I changed wireless carriers in July, I switched an inexpensive Android phone I'd bought several years ago to an Apple iPhone.
What are your thoughts about the surveillance malware? Would you buy an Android phone?