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Aptoide, a Play Store rival, cries antitrust foul over Google hiding its app

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As US regulators gear up to launch another antitrust probe of Google’s business, an alternative Android app store is dialling up its long time complaint of anti-competitive behavior against the search and smartphone OS giant.

Portugal-based Aptoide is launching a campaign website to press its case and call for Google to “Play Fair” — accusing Mountain View of squeezing consumer choice by “preventing users from freely choosing their preferred app store”.

Aptoide filed its first EU antitrust complaint against Google all the way back in 2014, joining a bunch of other complainants crying foul over how Google was operating Android.

And while the European Commission did eventually step in, slapping Google with a $5BN penalty for antitrust abuses last summer after a multi-year investigation, rivals continue to complain the Android maker still isn’t playing fair.

In the case of Aptoide, the alternative Android app store says Google has damaged its ability to compete by unjustifiably flagging its app as insecure.

“Since Summer 2018, Google Play Protect flags Aptoide as a harmful app, hiding it in users’ Android devices and requesting them to uninstall it. This results in a potential decrease of unique Aptoide users of 20%. Google Play Protect is Google’s built-in malware protection for Android, but we believe the way it works damages users’ rights,” it writes on the site, where it highlights what it claims are Google’s anti-competitive behaviors, and asks users to report experiences of the app being flagged.

Aptoide says Google has engaged in multiple behaviors that make it harder for it to gain or keep users — thereby undermining its ability to compete with Google’s own Play Store.

“In 2018, we had 222 million yearly active users. Last month (May’19), we had 56 million unique MAU,” co-founder and CEO Paulo Trezentos tells TechCrunch. “We estimate that the Google Play removal and flagging had cause the loss of 15% to 20% of our user base since June’18.”

(The estimate of how many users Aptoide has lost was performed using Google SafetyNet API which he says allows it to query the classification of an app.)

“Fortunately we have been able to compensate that with new users and new partnerships but it is a barrier to a faster growth,” he adds.

“The googleplayfair.com site hopes to bring visibility to this situation and help other start ups that may be under the same circumstances.”

Among the anti-competitive behaviors Aptoide accuses Google of engaging in are flagging and suspending its app from users’ phones — without their permission and “without a valid reason”.

“It hides Aptoide. User cannot see Aptoide icon and cannot launch. Even if they go to ‘settings’ and say they trust Aptoide, Aptoide installations are blocked,” he says. “If it looks violent, it’s because it’s a really aggressive move and impactful.”

Here’s the notification Aptoide users are shown when trying to override Google’s suspension of Aptoide at the package manager level:

Even if an Aptoide user overrides the warning — by clicking ‘keep app (unsafe)’ — Trezentos says the app still won’t work because Google blocks Aptoide from installing apps.

“The user has to go to Play Protect settings (discover it it’s not easy) and turn off Play protect for all apps.”

He argues there is no justification for Aptoide’s alternative app store being treated in this way.

“Aptoide is considered safe both by security researchers [citing a paper by Japanese security researchers] and by Virus Total (a company owned by Google),” says Trezentos, adding: “Google is removing Aptoide from users phone only due to anticompetitive practices. Doesn’t want anyone else as distribution channel in Android.”

On the website Aptoide has launched to raise awareness and inform users and other startups about how Google treats its app, it makes the claim that its store is “proven… 100% secure” — writing:

We would like to be treated in a fair way: Play Protect should not flag Aptoide as a harmful app and should not ask users to uninstall it since it’s proven that it’s 100% secure. Restricting options for users goes against the nature of the Android open source project [ref10]. Moreover, Google’s ongoing abusive behaviour due to it’s dominant position results in the lack of freedom of choice for users and developers.We would like to keep allowing users and developers to discover and distribute apps in the store of their choice. A healthy competitive market and a variety of options are what we all need to keep providing the best products.

Trezentos stands by the “100% secure” claim when we query it.

“We think that we have a safer approach. We call it  ‘security by design’: We don’t consider all apps secure in the same way. Each app has a badge depending on the reputation of the developer: Trusted, Unknown, Warning, Critical,” he says.

“We are almost 100% sure that apps with a trusted badge are safe. But new apps from new developers, [carry] more risk in spite of all the technology we have developed to detect it. They keep the badge ‘unknown‘ until the community vote it as trusted. This can take some weeks, it can take some months.”

“Of course, if our anti-malware systems detect problems, we classify it as ‘critical’ and the users don’t see it at all,” he adds.

Almost 100% secure then. But if Google’s counter claim to justify choking off access to Aptoide is that the app “can download potentially harmful apps” the same can very well be said of its Play Store. And Google certainly isn’t encouraging Android users to pause that.

On the competition front, Aptoide presents a clear challenge to Google’s Android revenues because it offers developers a more attractive revenue split — taking just 19%, rather than the 30% cut Google takes off of Play Store wares. (Aptoide couches the latter as “Google’s abusive conditions”.)

So if Android users can be persuaded to switch from Play to Aptoide, developers stand to gain — and arguably users too, as app costs would be lower.

While, on the flip side, Google faces its 30% cut being circumvented. Or else it could be forced to reduce how much it takes from developers to give them a greater incentive to stock its shelves with great apps.

As with any app store business, Aptoide’s store of course requires scale to function. And it’s exactly that scale which Google’s behavior has negatively impacted since it began flagging the app as insecure a year ago, in June 2018, squeezing the rival’s user-base by up to a fifth, as Aptoide tells it.

Trezentos says Google’s flagging of its app store affects all markets and “continues to this day” — despite a legal ruling in its favor last fall, when a court in Portugal ordered Google to stop removing Aptoide without users’ permission.

“Google is ignoring the injunction result and is disregarding the national court. No company, independently of the size, should be above court decisions. But it seems that is the case with Google,” he says.

“Our legal team believe that the decision applies to 82 countries but we are pursuing first the total compliance with the decision in Portugal. From there, we will seek the extension to other jurisdictions.”

“We tried to contact Google several times, via Google Play Protect feedback form and directly through LinkedIn, and we’ve not had any feedback from Google. No reasons were presented. No explanation, although we are talking about hiding Aptoide in millions of users’ phones,” he adds.

“Our point in court it’s simple: Google is using the control at operating system level to block competitors at the services level (app store, in this case). As Google has a dominant position, that’s not legal. Court [in Portugal] confirmed and order Google to stop. Google didn’t obey.”

Aptoide has not filed an antitrust complaint against Google in the US — focusing its legal efforts on that front on local submissions to the European Commission.

But Trezentos says it’s “willing to cooperate with US authorities and provide factual data that shows that Google has acted with anti-competitive behaviour” (although he says no one has come knocking to request such collaboration yet.)

In Europe, the Commission’s 2018 antitrust decision was focused on Android licensing terms — which led to Google tweaking the terms it offers Android OEMs selling in Europe last fall.

Despite some changes rivals continue to complain that its changes do not go far enough to create a level playing field for competition.

There has also not been any relief for Aptoide from the record breaking antitrust enforcement. On the contrary Google appears to have dug in against this competitive threat.

“The remedies are positive but the scope is very limited to OEM partnerships,” says Trezentos of the EC’s 2018 Android antitrust decision. “We proposed additionally that Google would be obliged to give the same access privileges over the operating system to credible competitors.”

We’ve reached out to the Commission for comment on Aptoide’s complaint.

While it’s at least technically possible for an OEM to offer an Android device in Europe which includes key Google services (like search and maps) but preloads an alternative app store, rather than Google Play, it would be a brave device maker indeed to go against the consumer grain and not give smartphone buyers the mainstream store they expect.

So, as yet, there’s little high level regulatory relief to help Aptoide. And it may take a higher court than a Portuguese national court to force Google to listen.

But with US authorities fast dialling up their scrutiny of Mountain View, Aptoide may find a new audience for its complaint.

“The increased awareness to Google practices is reaching the regulators,” Trezentos agrees, adding: “Those practices harm competition and in the end are bad for developers and mobile users.”

We reached out to Google with questions about its treatment of Aptoide’s rival app store — but at the time of writing the company had not responded with any comment. 

There have also been some recent rumors that Aptoide is in talks to supply its alternative app store for Huawei devices — in light of the US/China trade uncertainties, and the executive order barring US companies from doing business with the Chinese tech giant, which have led to reports that Google intends to withdraw key Android services like Play from the company.

But Trezentos pours cold water on these rumors, suggesting there has been no change of cadence in its discussions with Huawei.

“We work with three of top six mobile OEMs in the world. Huawei is not one of them yet,” he tells us. “Our Shengzhen office had been in conversations for some months and they are testing our APIs. This process has not been accelerated or delayed by the recent news.”

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Home alarm tech backdoored security cameras to spy on customers having sex

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Getty Images / Aurich Lawson

A home security technician has admitted he repeatedly broke into cameras he installed and viewed customers engaging in sex and other intimate acts.

Telesforo Aviles, a 35-year-old former employee of home and small office security company ADT, said that over a five-year period, he accessed the cameras of roughly 200 customer accounts on more than 9,600 occasions—all without the permission or knowledge of customers. He said he took note of homes with women he found attractive and then viewed their cameras for sexual gratification. He said he watched nude women and couples as they had sex.

Aviles made the admissions Thursday in US District Court for the District of Northern Texas, where he pleaded guilty to one count of computer fraud and one count of invasive visual recording. He faces a maximum of five years in prison.

Aviles told prosecutors that he routinely added his email address to the list of users authorized to access customers’ ADT Pulse accounts, which allow customers to remotely connect to the ADT home security system so they can turn on or off lights, arm or disarm alarms, and view feeds from security cameras. In some cases, he told customers that he had to add himself temporarily so he could test the system. Other times, he added himself without their knowledge.

More legal fallout

An ADT spokesman said the company brought the illegal conduct to the attention of prosecutors last April after learning Aviles gained unauthorized access to the accounts of 220 customers in the Dallas area. The security company then contacted each customer “to help make this right.” The company has already resolved disputes with some of the customers. ADT published this statement last April and has continued to update it.

“We are grateful to the Dallas FBI and the US Attorney’s Office for holding Telesforo Aviles responsible for a federal crime,” the company wrote in an update posted on Friday.

In the aftermath of the breach discovery, ADT has been hit by at least two proposed class-action lawsuits, one on behalf of ADT customers and the other on behalf of minors and others living inside the homes. A plaintiff in one of the suits was allegedly a teenager at the time that the breach occurred. ADT informed her family that the technician spied on her home almost 100 times, according to the lawsuit.

The suits alleged that ADT marketed its camera systems as a way for parents to use smartphones to check in on kids and pets. ADT, the plaintiffs said, failed to implement safeguards—including as two-factor authentication or text alerts when new parties access the accounts—that could have alerted customers to the invasion. The breach was discovered when a customer noticed an unauthorized email among addresses that had permission to access the security system.

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Chrome and Edge want to help with that password problem of yours

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Enlarge / Please don’t do this.

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If you’re like lots of people, someone has probably nagged you to use a password manager and you still haven’t heeded the advice. Now, Chrome and Edge are coming to the rescue with beefed-up password management built directly into the browsers.

Microsoft on Thursday announced a new password generator for the recently released Edge 88. People can use the generator when signing up for a new account or when changing an existing password. The generator provides a drop-down in the password field. Clicking on the candidate selects it as a password and saves it to a password manager built into the browser. People can then have the password pushed to their other devices using the Edge password sync feature.

As I’ve explained for years, the same things that make passwords memorable and easy to use are the same things that make them easy for others to guess. Password generators are among the safest sources of strong passwords. Rather than having to think up a password that’s truly unique and hard to guess, users can instead have a generator do it properly.

“Microsoft Edge offers a built-in strong password generator that you can use when signing up for a new account or when changing an existing password,” members of Microsoft’s Edge team wrote. “Just look for the browser-suggested password drop down in the password field and when selected, it will automatically save to the browser and sync across devices for easy future use.”

Edge 88 is also rolling out a feature called the “password monitor.” As the name suggests, it monitors saved passwords to make sure none of them are included in lists compiled from website compromises or phishing attacks. When turned on, the password monitor will alert users when a password matches lists published online.

Checking passwords in a secure way is a difficult task. The browser needs to be able to check a password against a large, always-changing list without sending sensitive information to Microsoft or information that could be sniffed by someone monitoring the connection between the user and Microsoft.

In an accompanying post also published Thursday, Microsoft explained how that’s done:

Homomorphic encryption is a relatively new cryptographic primitive that allows computing on encrypted data without decrypting the data first. For example, suppose we are given two ciphertexts, one encrypting 5 and the other encrypting 7. Normally, it does not make sense to “add” these ciphertexts together. However, if these ciphertexts are encrypted using homomorphic encryption, then there is a public operation that “adds” these ciphertexts and returns an encryption of 12, the sum of 5 and 7.

First, the client communicates with the server to obtain a hash H of the credential, where H denotes a hash function that only the server knows. This is possible using a cryptographic primitive known as an Oblivious Pseudo-Random Function (OPRF). Since only the server knows the hash function H, the client is prevented from performing an efficient dictionary attack on the server, a type of brute force attack that uses a large combination of possibilities to determine a password. The client then uses homomorphic encryption to encrypt H(k) and send the resulting ciphertext Enc(H(k)) to the server. The server then evaluates a matching function on the encrypted credential, obtaining a result (True or False) encrypted under the same client key. The matching function operation looks like this: computeMatch(Enc(k), D). The server forwards the encrypted result to the client, who decrypts it and obtains the result.

In the above framework, the main challenge is to minimize the complexity of the computeMatch function to obtain good performance when this function is evaluated on encrypted data. We utilized many optimizations to achieve performance that scales to users’ needs.

Not to be outdone, members of the Google Chrome team this week unveiled password protections of their own. Chief among them is a fuller-featured password manager that’s built into the browser.

“Chrome can already prompt you to update your saved passwords when you log in to websites,” Chrome team members wrote. “However, you may want to update multiple usernames and passwords easily, in one convenient place. That’s why starting in Chrome 88, you can manage all of your passwords even faster and easier in Chrome Settings on desktop and iOS (Chrome’s Android app will be getting this feature soon, too).”

Chrome 88 is also making it easier to check if any saved passwords have wound up on password dumps. While password auditing came to Chrome last year, the feature can now be accessed using a security check similar to the one shown below:

Google

Many people are more comfortable using a dedicated password manager because they offer more capabilities than those baked into their browser. Most dedicated managers, for instance, make it easy to use dice words in a secure way. With the line between browsers and password managers beginning to blur, it’s likely only a matter of time until browsers offer more advanced management capabilities.

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Phishing scam had all the bells and whistles—except for one

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Enlarge / The query window for username and password on a webpage can be seen on the monitor of a laptop.

Criminals behind a recent phishing scam had assembled all the important pieces. Malware that bypassed antivirus—check. An email template that got around Microsoft Office 365 Advanced Threat Protection—check. A supply of email accounts with strong reputations from which to send scam mails—check.

It was a recipe that allowed the scammers to steal more than 1,000 corporate employee credentials. There was just one problem: the scammers stashed their hard-won passwords on public servers where anyone—including search engines—could (and did) index them.

“Interestingly, due to a simple mistake in their attack chain, the attackers behind the phishing campaign exposed the credentials they had stolen to the public Internet, across dozens of drop-zone servers used by the attackers,” researchers from security firm Check Point wrote in a post published Thursday. “With a simple Google search, anyone could have found the password to one of the compromised, stolen email addresses: a gift to every opportunistic attacker.”

Check Point researchers found the haul as they investigated a phishing campaign that began in August. The scam arrived in emails that purported to come from Xerox or Xeros. The emails were sent by addresses that, prior to being hijacked, had high reputational scores that bypass many antispam and antiphishing defenses. Attached to the messages was a malicious HTML file that didn’t trigger any of the 60 most-used antimalware engines.

The email looked like this:

Check Point

Once clicked, the HTML file displayed a document that looked like this:

Check Point

When recipients were fooled and logged into a fake account, the scammers stored the credentials on dozens of WordPress websites that had been compromised and turned into so-called drop-zones. The arrangement made sense since the compromised sites were likely to have a higher reputational score than would be the case for sites owned by the attackers.

The attackers, however, failed to designate the sites as off-limits to Google and other search engines. As a result, Web searches were able to locate the data and lead security researchers to the cache of compromised credentials.

“We found that once the users’ information was sent to the drop-zone servers, the data was saved in a publicly visible file that was indexable by Google,” Thursday’s post from Check Point read. “This allowed anyone access to the stolen email address credentials with a simple Google search.”

Based on the analysis of roughly 500 of the compromised credentials, Check Point was able to compile the following breakdown of the industries targeted.

Simple Web searches show that some of the data stashed on the drop-zone servers remained searchable at the time this post was going live. Most of these passwords followed the same format, making it possible that the credentials didn’t belong to real-world accounts. Check Point’s discovery, however, is a reminder that, like so many other things on the Internet, stolen passwords are ripe for the picking.

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