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Google gives Android developers new tools to make money from users who won’t pay

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Google today is introducing a new way for Android developers to generate revenue from their mobile applications. And no, it’s not subscription-related. Instead, the company is launching a new monetization option for apps called “Rewarded Products.” This will allow non-paying app users to contribute to an app’s revenue stream by sacrificing their time, but not their money. The first product will be rewarded video, where users can opt to watch a video ad in exchange for in-game currency, virtual goods or other benefits.

The feature may make developers happy, but it remains to be seen how users react. Reception will depend on how the videos are introduced in the app.

Even in Google’s example of the rewarded product in action — meant to showcase a best-design practice, one would think — the video interrupts gameplay between levels with a full-screen takeover. This is not a scenario users would respond well to unless this was presented as the only way to play a popular, previously paid-only game for free, perhaps.Rewarded video has worked for some apps where users have come to expect a free product. That could include free-to-play games or other services where subscribing is an option, not a requirement.

For example, Pandora’s music streaming service was free and ad-supported for years, as it was radio-only. After it introduced tiers offering on-demand streaming to compete with Spotify, it rolled out a rewarded video product — so to speak — of its own. Today, Pandora listeners can choose to watch a video ad to access on-demand music for a session as an alternative to paying a monthly subscription.

Android app developers, of course, are already using advertisements to supplement, or as a means of, monetization, but this launch creates an official Google Play “product.” This makes implementation easier on developers and gives Google a way to compete with third parties offering something similar.

Rewarded products can be added to any app using the Google Play Billing Library or AIDL interface with only a few additional API calls, the company says. It won’t require an SDK.

The launch comes at a time when Apple has been seeing success with subscriptions, which it has fully embraced, pushed and sometimes even let run amok. Subscriptions are now one of the biggest factors, outside of games, in app store revenue growth.

But Android users, historically, have been more averse to paying for apps than those on iOS. Apple’s store has even seen nearly double that of Google Play in terms of revenue — despite having far fewer downloads. That means Android developers will not be able to tap into the subscription craze at the same scale as their iOS counterparts. And it means cross-platform developers may further prioritize building for iOS, as a result.

Rewarded products offer those developers an alternative path to monetization on a platform where that’s often been more difficult, outside of running ads.

Google says the rewarded video product is launching into open beta, and is available in the Play Console for developers.

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Malicious PyPI packages caught stealing developer data and injecting code

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Open source packages downloaded an estimated 30,000 times from the PyPI open source repository contained malicious code that surreptitiously stole credit card data and login credentials and injected malicious code on infected machines, researchers said on Thursday.

In a post, researchers Andrey Polkovnichenko, Omer Kaspi, and Shachar Menashe of security firm JFrog said they recently found eight packages in PyPI that carried out a range of malicious activity. Based on searches on https://pepy.tech, a site that provides download stats for Python packages, the researchers estimate the malicious packages were downloaded about 30,000 times.

Systemic threat

The discovery is the latest in a long line of attacks in recent years that abuse the receptivity of open source repositories, which millions of software developers rely on daily. Despite their crucial role, repositories often lack robust security and vetting controls, a weakness that has the potential to cause serious supply chain attacks when developers unknowingly infect themselves or fold malicious code into the software they publish.

“The continued discovery of malicious software packages in popular repositories like PyPI is an alarming trend that can lead to widespread supply chain attacks,” JFrog CTO Asaf Karas wrote in an email. “The ability for attackers to use simple obfuscation techniques to introduce malware means developers have to be concerned and vigilant. This is a systemic threat, and it needs to be actively addressed on several layers, both by the maintainers of software repositories and by the developers.”

The researchers thanked PyPI maintainer Dustin Ingram “for quickly responding and removing the malicious packages” when notified. Ingram didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Different packages from Thursday’s haul carried out different kinds of nefarious activities. Six of them had three payloads, one for harvesting authentication cookies for Discord accounts, a second for extracting any passwords or payment card data stored by browsers, and the third for gathering information about the infected PC, such as IP addresses, computer name, and user name.

The remaining two packages had malware that tries to connect to an attacker-designated IP address on TCP port 9009, and to then execute whatever Python code is available from the socket. It’s not now known what the IP address was or if there was malware hosted on it.

Like most novice Python malware, the packages used only a simple obfuscation such as from Base64 encoders. Here’s a breakdown of the packages:

Package name Maintainer Payload
noblesse xin1111 Discord token stealer, Credit card stealer (Windows-based)
genesisbot xin1111 Same as noblesse
are xin1111 Same as noblesse
suffer suffer Same as noblesse , obfuscated by PyArmor
noblesse2 suffer Same as noblesse
noblessev2 suffer Same as noblesse
pytagora leonora123 Remote code injection
pytagora2 leonora123 Same as pytagora

Karas told me that the first six packages had the ability to infect the developer computer but couldn’t taint the code developers wrote with malware.

“For both the pytagora and pytagora2 packages, which allows code execution on the machine they were installed, this would be possible.” he said in a direct message. “After infecting the development machine, they would allow code execution and then a payload could be downloaded by the attacker that would modify the software projects under development. However, we don’t have evidence that this was actually done.”

Beware of ‘Frankenstein’ malware packages

Rather than spending days developing code that performs everyday tasks, coders can instead turn to repositories like PyPI, RubyGems, or npm to obtain mature app packages that peers have already developed. Among the 2.7 million packages available on PyPI, for example, are ones developers can use to make apps ​​predict a home’s selling price using data scraped from the Internet, send emails through Amazon’s Simple Email Service, or check open source code for vulnerabilities. PyPI provides packages for software written in Python, while RubyGems and npm provide packages for Ruby and JavaScript apps.

This crucial role makes repositories the ideal setting for supply-chain attacks, which have grown increasingly common using techniques known as typosquatting or dependency confusion.

Repository supply-chain attacks date back to at least 2016, when a college student uploaded malicious packages to PyPI. Over a span of several months, his imposter code was executed more than 45,000 times on more than 17,000 separate domains, and more than half the time his code was given all-powerful administrative rights.
Since then, supply-chain attacks have become a regular occurrence for RubyGems and npm.
In recent months, white hat hackers have cooked up a new type of supply-chain attack that works by uploading malicious packages to public code repositories and giving them a name that’s identical to a package stored in the internal repository for a popular piece of software. These so-called dependency confusion attacks have already snared Apple, Microsoft, and 33 other companies.

The JFrog researchers said that, based on the current state of repository security, the Internet is likely to see more attacks in the future.

“Almost all of the code snippets analyzed in this research were based on known public tools, with only a few parameters changed,” they wrote. “The obfuscation was also based on public obfuscators. We expect to see more of these ‘Frankenstein’ malware packages stitched from different attack tools (with changed exfiltration parameters).”

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Biden warns cyber attacks could lead to a “real shooting war”

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Enlarge / US President Joe Biden, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo attend a plenary session of a NATO summit at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) headquarters in Brussels, on June 14, 2021.

President Joe Biden has warned that cyberattacks could escalate into a full-blown war as tensions with Russia and China mounted over a series of hacking incidents targeting US government agencies, companies, and infrastructure.

Biden said on Tuesday that cyber threats including ransomware attacks “increasingly are able to cause damage and disruption in the real world.”

“If we end up in a war, a real shooting war with a major power, it’s going to be as a consequence of a cyber breach,” the president said in a speech at the Office for the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees 18 US intelligence agencies.

A number of recent hacks revealed the extent of US cyber vulnerability, ranging from extensive espionage breaches that have struck at the heart of government to ransomware attacks that have brought operations at an important oil pipeline and meat packing plants to a halt.

The Biden administration has accused the governments of Russia and China, or hackers based inside the two countries, of some of the attacks. US officials have warned that the administration would respond with a “mix of tools seen and unseen” actions, but cyber breaches have continued.

Although he did not say who such a war might be fought against, Biden immediately name-checked Russia’s president Vladimir Putin, alleging that Russia was spreading misinformation ahead of the 2022 US midterm elections.

“It’s a pure violation of our sovereignty,” he said.

“Mr. Putin… has a real problem. He is sitting on top of an economy that has nuclear weapons and oil wells and nothing else. Nothing else,” Biden said. “He knows he’s in real trouble, which makes him even more dangerous.”

At a June summit in Geneva, Biden personally warned Putin that the US would “respond with cyber” if the Russian state or Russian-based hackers targeted critical US infrastructure.

The prohibited sectors spanned energy, health care, IT, and commercial facilities, all of which have already allegedly been targeted by Russian hackers since the 2020 US elections. Others included transport, financial services, and chemicals.

Biden also said Chinese President Xi Jinping was “deadly earnest” about China becoming the most powerful military force in the world by the 2040s, as well as the largest and most prominent economy.

“It’s real… This boy’s got a plan,” Biden said, adding: “We better figure out how we’re going to keep pace without exacerbating [the situation].”

Biden stressed that cyberattacks were just one aspect of the growing threats facing the US, saying that there would be more developments in the next 10 years than in the past 50, placing a tremendous burden on the intelligence community.

“It’s really going to get tougher,” he said.

© 2021 The Financial Times Ltd. All rights reserved Not to be redistributed, copied, or modified in any way.

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Haron and BlackMatter are the latest groups to crash the ransomware party

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July has so far ushered in at least two new ransomware groups. Or maybe they’re old ones undergoing a rebranding. Researchers are in the process of running down several different theories.

Both groups say they are aiming for big-game targets, meaning corporations or other large businesses with the pockets to pay ransoms in the millions of dollars. The additions come as recent ransomware intrusions of oil pipeline operator Colonial Pipeline, meat packer JBS SA, and managed network provider Kaseya have caused major disruptions and created pressure in Washington to curb the threats.

Haron: like Avaddon. Or maybe not

The first group is calling itself Haron. A sample of the Haron malware was first submitted to VirusTotal on July 19. Three days later, South Korean security firm S2W Lab discussed the group in a post.

Most of the group’s site on the dark web is password protected by extremely weak credentials. Once past the login page, there’s a list of alleged targets, a chat transcript that’s not fit to be shown in full, and the group’s explanation of its mission.

As S2W Lab pointed out, the layout, organization, and appearance of the site are almost identical to those for Avaddon, the ransomware group that went dark in June after sending a master decryption key to BleepingComputer that victims could use to recover their data.

The similarity on its own isn’t especially meaningful. It could mean that the creator of the Haron site had a hand in administering the Avaddon site. Or it could be the Haron site creator doing a headfake.

A connection between Haron and Avaddon would be more convincing if there were overlaps or similarities in the code used by the two groups. So far there are no such links reported.

The engine driving Haron ransomware, according to S2W Lab, is Thanos, a separate piece of ransomware that has been around since at least 2019. Haron was developed using a recently published Thanos builder for the C# programming language. Avaddon, by contrast, was written in C++.

Jim Walter, a senior threat researcher at security firm SentinelOne, said in a text message that he spotted what appear to be similarities with Avaddon in a couple of samples he recently started analyzing. He said he’d know more soon.

In the shadows of REvil and DarkSide

The second ransomware newcomer is calling itself BlackMatter. It was reported on Tuesday by security firm Recorded Future and its news arm The Record.

Recorded Future, The Record, and security firm Flashpoint, which also covered the emergence of BlackMatter, have questioned if the group has connections to either DarkSide or REvil. Those two ransomware groups suddenly went dark after attacks—against global meat producer JBS and managed network services provider Kaseya in REvil’s case and Colonial Pipeline in the case of DarkSide—generated more attention than the groups wanted. The Justice Department later claimed to have recovered $2.3 million from Colonial’s ransomware payment of $4.4 million.

But once again, the similarities at this point are all cosmetic and include the wording of a pledge, first made by DarkSide, not to target hospitals or critical infrastructure. Given the heat US President Joe Biden is trying to put on his Russian counterpart to crack down on Ransomware groups operating in Eastern Europe, it wouldn’t be surprising to see all groups follow DarkSide’s lead.

None of this is to say that the speculation is wrong, only that at the moment there’s little more than hunches for support.

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