Malware is an ever-present threat online, sort of like the common cold. It’s all around, and you can never really predict it’s arrival until too late. All you can do is be wary and engage in healthy habits to keep you safe. But sometimes, you’re let down by something you trusted.
That’s exactly what happened recently when more than 5 lakh users had their smartphones infected with malware. The sad part is, they got it from apps on the official Google Play Store.
Cybersecurity researcher Lukas Stefanko, who works with the firm ESET, posted a tweet this week detailing a set of malicious apps on the Play Store. All made by the same developer, attributed as Luiz O Pinto, these 13 apps were all masquerading as driving games.
According to Stefanko, the apps collectively crossed over 5,60,000 downloads before Google finally delisted them from the store. Two of the apps were even trending in the store before being removed, increasing the likelihood of people installing them.
Based on screenshots, people expected an app allowing them to drive around, but instead encountered an apparently buggy app that crashes on launch. What was actually happening though, was that the app would download an APK from another domain registered in Istanbul.
This APK was the malware payload. After it’s install was complete, it would automatically hide the original app’s icon on your phone, though it remained installed. All the more to make you think the app was just bugged, and making it harder to uninstall.
This left the “secret” app to do a variety of unpleasant things, like constantly running in the background. This let it detect whenever the phone is unlocked and serve the user ads on your home screen. However, there was also a strong possibility the malware was also able to steal data.
Like we said, malware is hard to fight as a service provider. Then again, it’s not impossible. Google is often considered far too lax as far as the apps it allows on its store. Conversely, Apple is considered far too restrictive, often shooting down apps for flimsy reasons other than security.
Yet, Google needs to learn something from Apple’s selectivity, especially at a time when tech companies are already under fire for not protecting their customers’ data from advertisers. Being unable to protect from straight up malware is just so much worse.
Just last year, the company took down over 7 lakh malicious apps from the Android app store. It’s also attempted to improve its back-end surveillance to prevent these apps from reaching the store to begin with. It’s just not doing it very well just yet.