Dark Reading is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them.Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

Attacks/Breaches

Adware Hidden in Android Apps Downloaded More Than 440 Million Times

The heavily obfuscated adware was found in 238 different apps on Google Play.

Consumers and enterprise customers expect the apps they download from Google Play, Apple's App Store, and other officially sanctioned app repositories to be secure and have at least minimal respect for privacy. But security researchers at Lookout found 238 applications in Google Play that hid BeiTaAd, a well-obfuscated ad plugin that could display ads on the device's lock screen, trigger video and audio advertisements even while the phone is asleep, and display ads outside the app that interfered with the user experience in other applications.

Kristina Balaam, security intelligence engineer at Lookout and author of the blog post on the research, says that the company's research into the apps began with a phone call. "We [Lookout] got a support call from an enterprise user who noticed strange pop-up ads on their devices," Balaam says. "The support person contacted the research team, we started digging through the apps, and realized that there were other samples."

What they found was a collection of 238 apps from a single publisher, all of which contained adware that someone had gone to great lengths to hide. The publisher, CooTek, is known for legitimate Android apps and is listed on the NYSE. And the simple presence of adware in free apps isn't unprecedented: Many publishers use in-app advertising as a way to profit from free apps. The difference in this case, Balaam says, is that "as official stores start to lock down the ads that can be shown, the publishers have to become more creative in how they hide adware."

In the case of the CooTek apps, someone used very sophisticated techniques to obfuscate the adware executable bundled with the app. The adware was renamed, given a different filetype extension, and given AES encryption. All of this might have been a small annoyance, but BeiTaAd is so aggressive that it effectively rendered the device unusable for enterprise purposes.

The combination of CooTek apps and BeiTaAd adware was effective at spreading the ads to a wide audience. In a screen shot used in the research report, one of the apps — TouchPal Keyboard — shows more than 100,000,000 downloads. Together, the infected apps showed more than 440 million downloads, according to Lookout.

The research report states that as of May 23, 2019, all affected apps had been either removed from Google Play or updated to versions that do not contain BeiTaAd. Still, Balaam says, "Whoever is responsible for this plug-in, they're aware that it doesn't comply with the Google terms of service." She doesn't point a finger at the company or any individual, but continues, "Someone knew that what they were doing was wrong and they tried not to get caught." 

Related content:

Curtis Franklin Jr. is Senior Editor at Dark Reading. In this role he focuses on product and technology coverage for the publication. In addition he works on audio and video programming for Dark Reading and contributes to activities at Interop ITX, Black Hat, INsecurity, and ... View Full Bio

Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Comments
Newest First  |  Oldest First  |  Threaded View
Aviation Faces Increasing Cybersecurity Scrutiny
Kelly Jackson Higgins, Executive Editor at Dark Reading,  8/22/2019
Microsoft Tops Phishers' Favorite Brands as Facebook Spikes
Kelly Sheridan, Staff Editor, Dark Reading,  8/22/2019
MoviePass Leaves Credit Card Numbers, Personal Data Exposed Online
Kelly Sheridan, Staff Editor, Dark Reading,  8/21/2019
Register for Dark Reading Newsletters
White Papers
Video
Cartoon
Current Issue
7 Threats & Disruptive Forces Changing the Face of Cybersecurity
This Dark Reading Tech Digest gives an in-depth look at the biggest emerging threats and disruptive forces that are changing the face of cybersecurity today.
Flash Poll
The State of IT Operations and Cybersecurity Operations
The State of IT Operations and Cybersecurity Operations
Your enterprise's cyber risk may depend upon the relationship between the IT team and the security team. Heres some insight on what's working and what isn't in the data center.
Twitter Feed
Dark Reading - Bug Report
Bug Report
Enterprise Vulnerabilities
From DHS/US-CERT's National Vulnerability Database
CVE-2016-6154
PUBLISHED: 2019-08-23
The authentication applet in Watchguard Fireware 11.11 Operating System has reflected XSS (this can also cause an open redirect).
CVE-2019-5594
PUBLISHED: 2019-08-23
An Improper Neutralization of Input During Web Page Generation ("Cross-site Scripting") in Fortinet FortiNAC 8.3.0 to 8.3.6 and 8.5.0 admin webUI may allow an unauthenticated attacker to perform a reflected XSS attack via the search field in the webUI.
CVE-2019-6695
PUBLISHED: 2019-08-23
Lack of root file system integrity checking in Fortinet FortiManager VM application images of all versions below 6.2.1 may allow an attacker to implant third-party programs by recreating the image through specific methods.
CVE-2019-12400
PUBLISHED: 2019-08-23
In version 2.0.3 Apache Santuario XML Security for Java, a caching mechanism was introduced to speed up creating new XML documents using a static pool of DocumentBuilders. However, if some untrusted code can register a malicious implementation with the thread context class loader first, then this im...
CVE-2019-15092
PUBLISHED: 2019-08-23
The webtoffee "WordPress Users & WooCommerce Customers Import Export" plugin 1.3.0 for WordPress allows CSV injection in the user_url, display_name, first_name, and last_name columns in an exported CSV file created by the WF_CustomerImpExpCsv_Exporter class.