Threat Intelligence Blog

Posted June 20, 2013

The word “safer” implies that something was safe to begin with; however, when it comes to mobile apps, “safe” is a relative term. Although both Google and Apple have methods to weed out rogue apps that contain malware and other undesirable features, malicious hackers have figured out how to exploit vulnerabilities in each operating system. So consumers need to be cautious when downloading any app, and companies should conduct regular searches of app stores to ensure their brands aren’t associated with rogue apps.

With an average one million people activating Android smartphones every day, there’s no shortage of targets for criminals, and Android apps are more vulnerable to compromise because of Android’s open operating system. To help combat this problem, Google offers a program called Google Bouncer that looks for malware in apps before they are released in the Google Play store. But the bad guys are circumventing Bouncer by offering a $25 premium for customer’s Play accounts, which they then use to spread malicious apps. They are also selling kits for as little as $1,000 that can be used to target banks and other financial institutions, and finding new ways to hide malware in apps to avoid detection by the Google Bouncer.

Although Apple’s growing base of customers is making it more of a target for malware and other rogue apps, there haven’t been as many issues yet because the iPhone has a closed operating system, which makes it less vulnerable to compromise. Apple also has a safety mechanism called Gatekeeper to patrol apps for rogues before they hit the iTunes app store. However, rogue apps can still make their way onto an iPhone.  If a user “jailbreaks” their phone, they can download programs from any third party site, making them vulnerable to apps that can contain malware.  For example, last year jailbroken iPhones were hit with Ikee, a worm that redirected banking customers to a fake website that collected personal data used to compromise their accounts.

Although “safe” mobile apps may be a misnomer, there are some things that consumers can do to protect themselves. Don’t download “free” versions of game apps that originate from Russia and China, as they’re more likely to contain malware. Additionally, reading reviews on apps before downloading them can provide insights as to whether or not they are legitimate. From an enterprise perspective, we recommend you conduct regular, systematic reviews of all the different app stores – there are more than 100 now – to look for rogue apps or those that might be misusing your brand to confuse or compromise your customers.

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