Reports of a pair of isolated mobile malware outbreaks at two large companies yet again calls into question the security of the Android device supply chain.
The mobile security research team with Check Point Software Technologies found several dozen devices at two unnamed enterprises teaming with malware that came preinstalled out of the box.
While the researchers noted that the apps weren't integrated components of the official ROM firmware developed by the devices' manufacturers, they did confirm that the malicious applications were not downloaded to the device after activation by the user.
"(They) were added somewhere along the supply chain," wrote Orien Koriat, a researcher with the Check Point Mobile Research Team. " Six of the malware instances were added by a malicious actor to the device’s ROM using system privileges, meaning they couldn’t be removed by the user and the device had to be re-flashed."
The report took a look at 36 infected devices from two large firms, a large telecom and a global technology company. The devices in question had multiple instances of preinstalled malware, including a number of information stealing applications, adware and ransomware. Some notable inclusions were instances of Slocker mobile ransomware and Loki adware, which establishes total persistence on a device through complete device control.
Pre-installed mobile device malware and built-in backdoors are starting to pop up in the Android device ecosystem with greater regularity and security experts believe that the problem will continue to grow. Most recently, the preinstallation of firmware on budget smartphones from manufacturers like BLU, Infinix, and LEAGOO that allowed for the remote installation of applications without user consent was highlighted by researchers at Kryptowire, Dr. Web and US-CERT. This ADUPS firmware was thoroughly enmeshed at the system level with the device platform and further research from Trustlook estimated that it came pre-installed on 700 million Android devices with the capability to "text messages, phone call histories, and details of how the phone is being used all without the user’s permission," researchers with Trustlook said.
One of the big dangers of pre-installed malicious apps is that bad behavior never looks abnormal to a device user.
"Pre-installed malware compromise the security even of the most careful users," says Koriat. "In addition, a user who receives a device already containing malware will not be able to notice any change in the device’s activity which often occur once a malware is installed."
According to Michael Patterson, CEO of networks security firm Plixer International, examples like this "shatter" the trust in the mobile device supply chain and "places into question the quality assurance processes that exist today for device manufacturers."
Though enterprises should reasonably expect new electronics to be free of malware from the get-go, they're still on the hook when events like this take place, he explains. This is why it's important to not only lean on device security measures but also a backstop of network monitoring and controls to look for issues like these. He adds that device manufacturers also need to step up their QA game to add greater security assurances before sending devices out the door.
"Based on these findings, device manufacturers should now introduce a final test of devices prior to shipping them to customers," he says. "Although this will certainly impact the cost of manufacturing and delivery, the potential negative impact of a loss of trust for mainstream manufacturers overshadows this cost increase."
Ericka Chickowski specializes in coverage of information technology and business innovation. She has focused on information security for the better part of a decade and regularly writes about the security industry as a contributor to Dark Reading. View Full Bio