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.

Threat Intelligence

1/9/2020
04:30 PM
Connect Directly
Twitter
LinkedIn
Google+
RSS
E-Mail
50%
50%

Chinese Malware Found Preinstalled on US Government-Funded Phones

Researchers found unremovable malware preinstalled in the Unimax U686CL, a budget Android device sold by Assurance Wireless.

Budget Android smartphones offered through a US government initiative for low-income Americans come with preinstalled, unremovable Chinese malware, researchers report.

These low-cost smartphones are sold by Assurance Wireless, a federal Lifeline Assistance program under Virgin Mobile. Lifeline, supported by the federal Universal Service Fund, is a government program launched in 1985 to provide discounted phone service to low-income households. The Unimax (UMX) U686CL ($35) is the most inexpensive smartphone it sells.

In October 2019, Malwarebytes began to receive complaints in its support system from users of the UMX U686CL who reported some pre-installed apps on their government-funded phones were malicious. Researchers purchased one of these smartphones to verify customers' claims.

The first suspicious app they detected is Wireless Update, which is capable of updating the device – it's the only way to update the phone's operating system – but also is a variant of the Adups malware. Adups is also the name of a Chinese company caught gathering user data, creating backdoors for mobile devices, and developing auto-installers, researchers report.

Years ago, Adups began partnering with budget phone companies to provide wireless phone updates, explains Nathan Collier, senior malware intelligence analyst for Malwarebytes Labs. For some reason, he notes, Google doesn't provide updates for budget smartphones.

"Adupts provides wireless updates so people can update their operating system, but they're also just installing random stuff without any user permission whatsoever," Collier explains. Not all of this content is malicious, he notes; sometimes the app simply installs hidden ads. Still, from the time the device is first activated, Wireless Update starts auto-installing apps.

"This opens the potential for malware to unknowingly be installed in a future update to any of the apps added by Wireless Update at any time," Collier writes in a blog post on the findings.

Wireless Update isn't the only unremovable app on the UMX U686CL. The phone's Settings app also functions as heavily obfuscated malware detected as Android/Trojan.Dropper.Agent.UMX, which shares characteristics with two other variants of known mobile Trojan droppers.

"It has a lot of elements that are very similar to other elements of Trojan droppers that we know for sure are dropping hidden ads," Collier explains. Hidden ads are growing more popular in the malware community, as attackers generate a little revenue with each click. On one device this may not amount to much, he adds, but it can add up over time as the victim pool grows.

Malwarebytes has a way to uninstall preinstalled apps for current users; however, this could have consequences on the UMX. Uninstalling Wireless Update could cause users to miss critical updates, which the company says is worth the tradeoff. Unfortunately, removing the Settings app would essentially render the device useless.

Researchers informed Assurance Wireless of the problem and have not heard a response at the time of writing. Customers were also reaching out to UMX, Collier says, noting this problem falls on Assurance. It's worth noting UMX devices are made by a Chinese company; however, it has not been confirmed whether the device makers know there is Chinese malware preinstalled.

The issue of preinstalled malware has grown over the past several years. Now, as it starts to affect the Settings app and other critical parts of device software, it's becoming more of a challenge for users. Unlike apps that can be deleted and forgotten, the apps affected here cannot be simply uninstalled without irreversibly damaging the phone.

"This has been an issue for quite a while and it's getting worse and worse," Collier says. "We're seeing it on a lot of different budget carriers around the world."

Related Content:

Check out The Edge, Dark Reading's new section for features, threat data, and in-depth perspectives. Today's top story: "In App Development, Does No-Code Mean No Security?"

Kelly Sheridan is the Staff Editor at Dark Reading, where she focuses on cybersecurity news and analysis. She is a business technology journalist who previously reported for InformationWeek, where she covered Microsoft, and Insurance & Technology, where she covered financial ... View Full Bio

Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Comments
Newest First  |  Oldest First  |  Threaded View
44% of Security Threats Start in the Cloud
Kelly Sheridan, Staff Editor, Dark Reading,  2/19/2020
Zero-Factor Authentication: Owning Our Data
Nick Selby, Chief Security Officer at Paxos Trust Company,  2/19/2020
Register for Dark Reading Newsletters
White Papers
Video
Cartoon
Current Issue
6 Emerging Cyber Threats That Enterprises Face in 2020
This Tech Digest gives an in-depth look at six emerging cyber threats that enterprises could face in 2020. Download your copy today!
Flash Poll
How Enterprises Are Developing and Maintaining Secure Applications
How Enterprises Are Developing and Maintaining Secure Applications
The concept of application security is well known, but application security testing and remediation processes remain unbalanced. Most organizations are confident in their approach to AppSec, although others seem to have no approach at all. Read this report to find out more.
Twitter Feed
Dark Reading - Bug Report
Bug Report
Enterprise Vulnerabilities
From DHS/US-CERT's National Vulnerability Database
CVE-2020-9405
PUBLISHED: 2020-02-26
IBL Online Weather before 4.3.5a allows unauthenticated reflected XSS via the redirect page.
CVE-2020-9406
PUBLISHED: 2020-02-26
IBL Online Weather before 4.3.5a allows unauthenticated eval injection via the queryBCP method of the Auxiliary Service.
CVE-2020-9407
PUBLISHED: 2020-02-26
IBL Online Weather before 4.3.5a allows attackers to obtain sensitive information by reading the IWEBSERVICE_JSONRPC_COOKIE cookie.
CVE-2020-9398
PUBLISHED: 2020-02-25
ISPConfig before 3.1.15p3, when the undocumented reverse_proxy_panel_allowed=sites option is manually enabled, allows SQL Injection.
CVE-2015-5201
PUBLISHED: 2020-02-25
VDSM and libvirt in Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization Hypervisor (aka RHEV-H) 7-7.x before 7-7.2-20151119.0 and 6-6.x before 6-6.7-20151117.0 as packaged in Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization before 3.5.6 when VSDM is run with -spice disable-ticketing and a VM is suspended and then restored, allows r...