Trend Micro applications Dr. Antivirus, Dr. Cleaner, and Dr. Unarchiver have been taken off the Apple App Store after researchers discovered they were collecting data from users’ browser histories and different applications stored on their machines. The news comes days after Apple removed the popular Adware Doctor app (not from Trend Micro) for similar reasons.
The three apps from Trend Micro, Inc. that were removed were found by multiple researchers to be gathering and uploading browser data from Safari, Chrome, and Firefox, as well as information from applications installed on their systems. The apps start collecting data upon launch then exfiltrate it to the developer's servers.
The issue was reported by one user on the Malwarebyes forum, says Director of Mac and Mobile, Thomas Reed. They weren’t the only ones to notice the issue, which was brought up by multiple researchers who noticed Trend Micro apps collecting and exfiltrating data. Reed says they worked with the researcher to identify the apps exfiltrating data and what the data was.
Normally, Apple apps from the Mac store are sandboxed and fairly limited in the types and breadth of data they can access. However, because these apps are designed to scan for security issues and clean up machines, they need information other apps don't receive, so they request access to home files on the user’s system to gain the access they need.
Once a user grants access to the home folder, the app has access to user preferences and settings. All three applications takes the browsing histories from Safari, Chrome, and Firefox, he explains, and separates the browsing history and search history for each browser and puts it in a file. Each file - two for each browser, six in total - is exfiltrated.
The exception, he says, is with Dr. Antivirus, which Reed says also grabs a list of applications running on the user's system. He believes this is done via sandbox escape. "I don’t think that’s something Apple intended for them to be able to do," he says.
A common reason someone would want to gather this data is for threat intelligence, Reed continues. Consider browser history: if you saw some sign a threat was entering the system, it would make sense to grab the last sites visited from the user’s browser history. You want to know the context; where the threat came from.
However, from a privacy perspective, it doesn’t make sense to siphon the browser history without any sign a threat has been detected on the machine, nor does it make sense to collect the apps a user is running on their machine.
"It's difficult to identify unless you're running software to monitor your network connections," says Reed of detecting this type of data collection. If you're an expert there are ways to identify which files are uploaded and downloaded, but average users likely can't do this. He advises users to think twice before allowing permissions to any applications - do they really need it?
Trend Micro has issued a statement on the findings, denying reports the company is stealing user data and sending them to an unidentified server, which some reports have stated is located in China. It says it has completed an initial investigation of a privacy concern related to some of its macOS consumer products.
"The results confirm that Dr. Cleaner, Dr. Cleaner Pro, Dr. Antivirus, Dr. Unarchiver, Dr. Battery, and Duplicate Finder collected and uploaded a small snapshot of the browser history on a one-time basis, covering the 24 hours prior to installation," the company reports.
It states this "was a one-time data collection" done for security purposes, to analyze whether users had recently encountered adware or other threats. The data collected was identified to the customer in the collection policy and highlighted during the installation, officials write. Browser history data went to a US-based server hosted by AWS and controlled by Trend Micro.
The company has decided to remove the browser history collection capability from the apps.
It's not the first time legitimate applications have been deleted for collecting user data. On Friday, Sep. 7, Apple removed the $4.99 Adware Doctor, which was its fourth highest-selling app and top-grossing software product under the App Store's "paid utilities" category.
Adware Doctor claimed to protect users from malware and adware on their browsers while it quietly exfiltrated browser histories and other sensitive data. Patrick Wardle, founder and chief research officer at Digita Security, and creator of Objective-See, a Mac security website, investigated the issue after other security researchers raised concerns. He reported the problem to Apple a month ago but the firm didn’t remove Adware Doctor until Friday morning.
"I suspect there are probably other apps out there doing the same thing," says Reed of the data collection by Adware Doctor and Trend Micro's apps. While he doesn't believe the two cases are related in any way, he does note they are collecting similar data in a similar manner. While it's not outright harmful - malware, in contrast, may steal passwords and credit card numbers - it is a problem and he anticipates other tools and services may be doing the same thing.
"The similarities are very striking and may indicate there are other apps out there doing this that we haven't discovered yet."
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