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Flaw in Android

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Check Point researchers recently spotted a flaw in one of Android’s security mechanisms. This flaw exposes Android users to several types of attacks, including ransomware, banking malware and adware.

Check Point researchers say they have spotted a flaw in one of Android’s security mechanisms. Based on Google’s policy which grants extensive permissions to apps installed directly from Google Play, this flaw exposes Android users to several types of attacks, including ransomware, banking malware and adware. Check Point reported this flaw to Google, which responded that this issue is already being dealt with in the upcoming version of Android, currently dubbed “Android O”.

Technical Background:

In Android version 6.0.0, dubbed “Marshmallow”, Google introduced a new permission model for apps. The new model consists of several groups of permissions, with permissions considered as “dangerous” granted only during runtime. This means that during the first time an app tries to access a “dangerous” resource, the user is required to approve the necessary permission.

In addition to the “dangerous” permissions, another category exists, which contains a single permission – SYSTEM_ALERT_WINDOW. Unlike the other permissions, to grant it, the user must go through several menus (Settings -> Apps -> Draw over other apps) and manually allow an app to use it.

The reason SYSTEM_ALERT_WINDOW is unique is the extensive capability it withholds, by enabling an app to display over any other app without notifying the user. This entails a significant potential for several malicious techniques, such as displaying fraudulent ads, phishing scams, click-jacking, and overlay windows, which are common with banking Trojans. It can also be used by ransomware to create a persistent on-top screen that will prevent non-technical users from accessing their devices. According to our findings, 74% of ransomware, 57% of adware, and 14% of banker malware abuse this permission as part of their operation. This is clearly not a minor threat, but an actual tactic used in the wild.

The Flaw:

Since Google understood the problematic nature of this permission, and the apparent risks for user privacy it created the distinct process mentioned above to approve it. However, this soon caused problems, as this permission is also used by legitimate apps, such as Facebook, which requires it for its Messenger chat heads feature. Since most users won’t be able to approve the permission manually, such apps could be hurt by it.

As a temporary solution, Google applied a patch in Android version 6.0.1 that allows the Play Store app to grant run-time permissions, which are later used to grant SYSTEM_ALERT_WINDOW permission to apps installed from the app store. This means that a malicious app downloaded directly from the app store will be automatically granted this dangerous permission.

The Impact:

Based on Check Point research, nearly 45% of the applications using the SYSTEM_ALERT_WINDOW permission are apps from Google Play. With the granting of SYSTEM_ALERT_WINDOW permission to apps installed from the app store, Google effectively bypasses the security mechanism introduced in the previous version. Google relies heavily on “Bouncer”, which scans apps uploaded to Google Play, to keep harmful apps out of it. Unfortunately, malicious apps successfully infiltrate Google Play time after time. FalseGuide and Skinner discovered on Google Play are two recent examples.

Google is working on a fix

After Check Point reported this flaw, Google responded it has already set plans to protect users against this threat in the upcoming version “Android O”. This will be done by creating a new restrictive permission called TYPE_APPLICATION_OVERLAY, which blocks windows from being positioned above any critical system windows, allowing users to access settings and block an app from displaying alert windows.

How to stay protected in the meantime?

·         Beware of fishy apps

Users should always beware of malicious apps, even when downloading from Google Play. Look for the comments left by other users, and grant only permissions which have relevant context for the app’s purpose.

·         Implement advanced security measures

Just as you protect your PC with dedicated security solutions, you should also make sure to protect your mobile device using a protective solution capable of identifying and blocking known and unknown malware.

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Small South African town goes smartphone-only

Vodacom partners with farming business to upgrade all residents of Wakkerstroom from 2G devices to smartphones

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All residents of the small town of Wakkerstroom, which straddles Mpumalanga and kwaZulu-Natal provinces, have had their 2G feature phones upgraded to 3G devices.

The initiative is a result of Vodacom partnering with BPG Langfontein, a farming business that employs the majority of the people living in Wakkerstroom. It is now the first smartphone-only town in South Africa. This is a model the network provider says it hopes to replicate across the country as part of its mission to connect people who live in deep rural areas and are still dependent on 2G networks.

Wakkerstroom, is the second oldest town in Mpumalanga province, on the KwaZulu-Natal border, 27 km east of Volksrust and 56 km south-east of Amersfoort.  

“There are growing expectations for big corporates the size of Vodacom to serve a social purpose, and for us to use our resources and core capabilities to make a significant contribution in transforming the lives of ordinary people,” says Zakhele Jiyane, Managing Executive for Vodacom Mpumalanga. “We are helping to remove communication barriers, so that citizens in the area can be part of the digital revolution and reap the associated benefits. By moving the more than 1400 farm workers from 2G to 3G devices, this will also free much needed spectrum and this spectrum can be re-farmed to provide for faster networks such as 3G and 4G.

“Crucially, the move opens a new world of connectivity for farm workers in Wakkerstroom. As a result, most people in the area will now be able to use the Vodacom network to connect on the net and access online government services, eHealth services such as Mum&Baby and eCommerce. Learners can now surf the internet for the first time and access Vodacom’s eSchool free of charge and those who are actively looking for jobs can start using their smartphones and tablets to apply for jobs over the internet on Vodacom’s zero-rated career sites. This will be key for driving growth to the benefit of people living in this area.”

Vodacom has already deployed 4G base stations in Wakkestroom as part of this initiative.

For the next phase of this project, says Vodacom, it is going to educate the farm workers about data and the benefits of the Internet. Vodacom will also look at various ways in which it can help empower members of this community in areas of education, gender-based violence and health.

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10 more African countries join Facebook fact-checking

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Facebook today announced the expansion of its Third-Party Fact-Checking programme to 10 additional African countries, which now join  Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Cameroon and Senegal in the project,

In partnership with Agence France-Presse (AFP), the France 24 Observers, Pesa Check and Dubawa, this programme forms part of its work in helping assess the accuracy and quality of news people find on Facebook, whilst reducing the spread of misinformation on its platform.

Working with a network of fact-checking organizations, certified by the non-partisan International Fact-Checking Network, third-party fact-checking will now be available in Ethiopia, Zambia, Somalia and Burkina Faso through AFP, Uganda and Tanzania through both Pesa Check and AFP, Democratic Republic of Congo and Cote d’Ivoire through the France 24 Observers and AFP, Guinea Conakry through the France 24 Observers, and Ghana through Dubawa.

Feedback from the Facebook community is one of many signals Facebook uses to raise potentially false stories to fact-checkers for review. Local articles will be fact-checked alongside the verification of photos and videos. If one of our fact-checking partners identifies a story as false, Facebook will show it lower in News Feed, significantly reducing its distribution.

Kojo Boakye, Facebook Head of Public Policy, Africa, said: “The expansion of third-party fact-checking to now cover 15 countries in a little over a year shows firsthand our commitment and dedication to the continent, alongside our recent local language expansion as part of this programme. Taking steps to help tackle false news on Facebook is a responsibility we take seriously, we know misinformation is a problem, and these are important steps in continuing to address this issue. We know that third-party fact-checking alone is not the solution, it is one of many initiatives and programmes we are investing in to help to improve the quality of information people see on Facebook. While we’ve made great progress, we will keep investing to ensure Facebook remains a place for all ideas, but not for the spread of false news.”

When third-party fact-checkers fact-check a news story, Facebook will show these in Related Articles immediately below the story in News Feed. Page Admins and people on Facebook will also receive notifications if they try to share a story or have shared one in the past that’s been determined to be false, empowering people to decide for themselves what to read, trust, and share.

Providing fact-checking in English and French across eight countries, Phil Chetwynd, AFP Global News Director said: “AFP is delighted to be expanding its fact-checking project with Facebook. We are known for the high quality of our journalism from across Africa and we will be leveraging our unparalleled network of bureaus and journalists on the continent to combat misinformation.”

Eric Mugendi, Managing Editor from Pesa Check who will provide fact-checking services in Swahili and English added: “Social networks like Facebook haven’t just changed how Africans consume the news. Social media is often the primary access to digital content or the ‘Internet’ for many Africans. They shape our perceptions of the world, our public discourse, and how we interact with public figures. This project helps us dramatically expand our fact-checking to debunk claims that could otherwise cause real-world harm. The project helps us respond more quickly and directly. We’re seeing real positive results in our interactions with both publishers and the public itself. The project also helps our fact-checks reach a far larger audience than we would otherwise. This has helped us better understand the information vacuum and other viral dynamics that drive the spread of false information in Africa. Our growing impact is a small but tangible contribution to better informed societies in Africa.”

Caroline Anipah, Programme Officer, Dubawa (Ghana) said: “Dubawa is excited to be in Ghana where the misinformation and disinformation have become widespread as a result of technological advancement and increasing internet penetration. Dubawa intends to raise the quality of information available to the public with the ultimate aim of curbing the spread of misinformation and disinformation and promoting good governance and accountability.”

Derek Thomson, editor-in-chief of the France 24 Observers, said: “Our African users are constantly sending us questionable images and messages they’ve received via social media, asking us ‘Is this true? Can you check it?’ It’s our responsibility as fact-checking journalists to verify the information that’s circulating, and get the truth back out there. Participating in the Facebook programme helps ensure that our fact-checks are reaching the people who shared the false news in the first place.”

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