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Unremovable malware found preinstalled on low-end smartphone sold in the US

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Low-end smartphones sold to Americans with low-income via a government-subsidized program contain unremovable malware, security firm Malware bytes said today in a report.

The smartphone model is Unimax (UMX) U686CL, a low-end Android-based smartphone made in China and sold by Assurance Wireless, a cell phone service provider part of the Virgin Mobile group.

The telco sells cell phones part of Lifeline, a government program that subsidizes phone service for low-income Americans.

“In late 2019, we saw several complaints in our support system from users with a government-issued phone reporting that some of its pre-installed apps were malicious,” Malwarebytes said in a report published today.

The company said it purchased a UMX U686CL smartphone and analyzed it to confirm the reports it was receiving.

Adups backdoor

For starters, Malwarebytes said it found that one of the phone’s components, an app named Wireless Update, contained the Adups malware.

The Adups malware was discovered in 2017 by Kryptowire, and it’s a malicious firmware component created by a Chinese company of the same name.

Adups provides the component as a firmware-over-the-air (FOTA) update system to various smartphone makers and firmware vendors.

The component is supposed to allow firmware vendors a way to update their code, but in 2017 the Kryptowire team discovered that Adups (the company) also had the ability to ship updates to users’ phones, bypassing smartphone vendors and users alike.

Malwarebytes says that this component was currently in use on UMX devices, and was being used to install apps without the user’s knowledge. By who remains unclear.

“From the moment you log into the mobile device [the UMX U686CL], Wireless Update starts auto-installing apps,” the Malwarebytes team said. “To repeat: There is no user consent collected to do so, no buttons to click to accept the installs, it
just installs apps on its own.

“While the apps it installs are initially clean and free of malware, it’s
important to note that these apps are added to the device with zero notification or permission required from the user. 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.”

Dropper leads to adware

But Malwarebytes said there is a second dangerous component included on these phones. Researchers said they also found suspicious code in the phone’s Settings app.

The app, Malwarebytes says, was tainted with what appeared to be a strain of heavily-obfuscated malware, believed to be of Chinese origin, due to the heavy use of Chinese characters as variable names.

Security researchers said this malware was coded to work as a dropper for a second-stage malware payload, a well-known adware strain known as HiddenAds.

“Although we have yet to reproduce the dropping of additional malware ourselves, our users have reported that indeed a variant of HiddenAds suddenly installs on their UMX mobile device,” Malwarebytes said.

Unremovable

Malwarebytes researchers said they couldn’t confirm that Unimax was the party that added the malware to the devices.

This might be another case where malware was added to devices by third-parties involved in a smartphone’s supply chain — while the devices travel from the phone maker to a buyer.

Malwarebytes said that while the device “is not a bad phone,” the presence of the two malware-infected apps make the smartphone worthless and even dangerous to its users.

Making matters worse, the two malicious apps are unremovable.

While users could disable and uninstall the Wireless Update app, this would result in the phone missing out critical security updates for its firmware components — which effectively makes the app unremovable, at least if you want to keep your device up to date.

On the other hand, the Settings app is unremovable in the real meaning of the word, as there is no way to remove the app, and even if you did, you wouldn’t be able to manage your phone afterward.

Malwarebytes says it informed Assurance Wireless of its findings but never heard back from the company. A request for comment sent by ZDNet two days ago was also not returned.



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The Five Pillars of (Azure) Cloud-based Application Security

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This 1-hour webinar from GigaOm brings together experts in Azure cloud application migration and security, featuring GigaOm analyst Jon Collins and special guests from Fortinet, Director of Product Marketing for Public Cloud, Daniel Schrader, and Global Director of Public Cloud Architecture and Engineering, Aidan Walden.

These interesting times have accelerated the drive towards digital transformation, application rationalization, and migration to cloud-based architectures. Enterprise organizations are looking to increase efficiency, but without impacting performance or increasing risk, either from infrastructure resilience or end-user behaviors.

Success requires a combination of best practice and appropriate use of technology, depending on where the organization is on its cloud journey. Elements such as zero-trust access and security-driven networking need to be deployed in parallel with security-first operations, breach prevention and response.

If you are looking to migrate applications to the cloud and want to be sure your approach maximizes delivery whilst minimizing risk, this webinar is for you.

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Data Management and Secure Data Storage for the Enterprise

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This free 1-hour webinar from GigaOm Research brings together experts in data management and security, featuring GigaOm Analyst Enrico Signoretti and special guest from RackTop Systems, Jonathan Halstuch. The discussion will focus on data storage and how to protect data against cyberattacks.

Most of the recent news coverage and analysis of cyberattacks focus on hackers getting access and control of critical systems. Yet rarely is it mentioned that the most valuable asset for the organizations under attack is the data contained in these systems.

In this webinar, you will learn about the risks and costs of a poor data security management approach, and how to improve your data storage to prevent and mitigate the consequences of a compromised infrastructure.

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CISO Podcast: Talking Anti-Phishing Solutions

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Simon Gibson earlier this year published the report, “GigaOm Radar for Phishing Prevention and Detection,” which assessed more than a dozen security solutions focused on detecting and mitigating email-borne threats and vulnerabilities. As Gibson noted in his report, email remains a prime vector for attack, reflecting the strategic role it plays in corporate communications.

Earlier this week, Gibson’s report was a featured topic of discussions on David Spark’s popular CISO Security Vendor Relationship Podcast. In it, Spark interviewed a pair of chief information security officers—Mike Johnson, CISO for SalesForce, and James Dolph, CISO for Guidewire Software—to get their take on the role of anti-phishing solutions.

“I want to first give GigaOm some credit here for really pointing out the need to decide what to do with detections,” Johnson said when asked for his thoughts about selecting an anti-phishing tool. “I think a lot of companies charge into a solution for anti-phishing without thinking about what they are going to do when the thing triggers.”

As Johnson noted, the needs and vulnerabilities of a large organization aligned on Microsoft 365 are very different from those of a smaller outfit working with GSuite. A malicious Excel macro-laden file, for example, poses a credible threat to a Microsoft shop and therefore argues for a detonation solution to detect and neutralize malicious payloads before they can spread and morph. On the other hand, a smaller company is more exposed to business email compromise (BEC) attacks, since spending authority is often spread among many employees in these businesses.

Gibson’s radar report describes both in-line and out-of-band solutions, but Johnson said cloud-aligned infrastructures argue against traditional in-line schemes.

“If you put an in-line solution in front of [Microsoft] 365 or in front of GSuite, you are likely decreasing your reliability, because you’ve now introduced this single point of failure. Google and Microsoft have this massive amount of reliability that is built in,” Johnson said.

So how should IT decision makers go about selecting an anti-phishing solution? Dolph answered that question with a series of questions of his own:

“Does it nail the basics? Does it fit with the technologies we have in place? And then secondarily, is it reliable, is it tunable, is it manageable?” he asked. “Because it can add a lot overhead, especially if you have a small team if these tools are really disruptive to the email flow.”

Dolph concluded by noting that it’s important for solutions to provide insight that can help organizations target their protections, as well as support both training and awareness around threats. Finally, he urged organizations to consider how they can measure the effectiveness of solutions.

“I may look at other solutions in the future and how do I compare those solutions to the benchmark of what we have in place?”

Listen to the Podcast: CISO Podcast

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