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Flaw in Android

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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Personal computing devices sales still decline in MEA

The Middle East and Africa (MEA) personal computing devices (PCD) market, which is made up of desktops, notebooks, workstations, and tablets, suffered a decline of -7.3% year on year in Q2 2017, according to the latest insights from International Data Corporation (IDC).

The global technology research and consulting firm’s Quarterly PCD Tracker for Q2 2017 shows that PCD shipments fell to around 6 million units for the quarter.

“As forecast, the market followed a similar pattern to recent quarters, with the downturn primarily stemming from a decline in shipments of slate tablets and desktops,” says Fouad Charakla, IDC’s senior research manager for client devices in the Middle East, Turkey, and Africa. “This was the result of desktop users increasingly switching to mobile devices such as notebooks or even refurbished notebooks, while users of slate tablets shifted to smartphones. These trends translated into year-on-year declines of -21.9% for desktops and -15.7% for slate tablets in Q2 2017, while shipments of notebooks and detachable tablets increased 11.0% and 63.3%, respectively over the same period.”

“Market sentiment in the region remained low overall, although an aggressive push from some slate tablet vendors meant the market declined much slower than expected,” continues Charakla. “At the same time, heightened competition has also made it harder for certain players to sustain their slate tablet businesses and generate profits, causing them to lose interest in the slate tablet market altogether. Despite this, slate tablets are still the most popular computing device among home users in the region.”

Looking at the region’s key markets, IDC’s research shows that when compared to Q2 2016 overall PCD shipments were down -11.4% in the UAE, -8.9% in Turkey, and -6.7% in the ‘Rest of Middle East’ sub-region (comprising Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Palestine, and Afghanistan). South Africa and Saudi Arabia bucked this trend, recording year-on-year increases of 3.5% and 9.6%, respectively.

A massive education delivery in Pakistan acted as a key driver for notebook shipments in the region overall. Similarly, the education sector was the biggest driver of detachable tablet shipments, triggered by a huge delivery in Kenya, as well as two other deliveries in Pakistan and Turkey, which enabled this category to achieve the fastest growth of all the PCD categories.

“While a component shortage prevented market players from reducing their prices too much, the average price of consumer notebooks experienced a considerable year-on-year decline in Q2 2017,” says Charakla. “This played a key role in driving demand from the consumer segment, and was reflected in the growing popularity of lower-priced notebook models.”

Looking at the PC market’s vendor rankings, each of the top five vendors maintained their respective positions compared to the previous quarter, with the top four all gaining share.

Middle East & Africa PC Market Vendor Shares – Q2 2016 vs. Q2 2017

Brand Q2 2016 Q2 2017
HP Inc. 23.7% 27.6%
Lenovo 19.8% 21.5%
Dell 16.3% 16.7%
ASUS 8.7% 9.4%
Acer Group 5.9% 4.1%
Others 25.7% 20.7%

Although Samsung continued to lead the tablet market, the vendor rankings in the space saw quite a few changes, with Huawei catapulting itself to second place. Lenovo also climbed up a position compared to the previous quarter, causing Apple to drop to fourth place.

Middle East & Africa Tablet Market Vendor Shares – Q2 2016 vs. Q2 2017

Brand Q2 2016 Q2 2017
Samsung 20.5% 18.9%
Huawei 11.2% 15.8%
Lenovo 12.7% 9.8%
Apple 9.1% 8.8%
Alcatel 2.9% 5.0%
Others 43.5% 41.7%

“Looking to the future, the MEA PCD market is expected to decline at a faster rate than previously forecast for 2017 as a whole,” says Charakla. “Technological shifts are playing a pivotal role in deciding the future of this market, with demand for certain products shifting to other PCD products and beyond (i.e., smartphones). Accordingly, shipments of slate tablets are expected to continue declining over the coming years as demand is cannibalized by smartphones. Meanwhile, the ongoing shift to mobile computing will see growth in the desktop market remain close to flat throughout IDC’s forecast period ending 2021. Notebook shipments will experience very slow growth beyond 2018, while detachable tablets will remain the fastest growing PCD category, eating away share from other computing devices.”

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Gazer cyber-spies exposed

ESET has released new research into the activities of the Turla cyberespionage group, and specifically a previously undocumented backdoor that has been used to spy on consulates and embassies worldwide.

ESET’s research team are the first in the world to document the advanced backdoor malware, which they have named “Gazer”, despite evidence that it has been actively deployed in targeted attacks against governments and diplomats since at least 2016.

Gazer’s success can be explained by the advanced methods it uses to spy on its intended targets, and its ability to remain persistent on infected devices, embedding itself out of sight on victim’s computers in an attempt to steal information for a long period of time.

ESET researchers have discovered that Gazer has managed to infect a number of computers around the world, with the most victims being located in Europe. Curiously, ESET’s examination of a variety of different espionage campaigns which used Gazer has identified that the main target appears to have been Southeastern Europe as well as countries in the former Soviet Union Republic.

The attacks show all the hallmarks of past campaigns launched by the Turla hacking group, namely:

  • Targeted organisations are embassies and ministries;
  • Spearphishing delivers a first-stage backdoor such as Skipper;
  • A second stealthier backdoor (Gazer in this instance, but past examples have included Carbon and Kazuar) is put in place;
  • The second-stage backdoor receives encrypted instructions from the gang via C&C servers, using compromised, kegitimate websites as a proxy.

Another notable similarity between Gazer and past creations of the Turla cyberespionage group become obvious when the malware is analysed. Gazer makes extra efforts to evade detection by changing strings within its code, randomizing markers, and wiping files securely.

In the most recent example of the Gazer backdoor malware found by ESET’s research team, clear evidence was seen that someone had modified most of its strings, and inserted phrases related to video games throughout its code.

Don’t be fooled by the sense of humour that the Turla hacking group are showing here, falling foul of computer criminals is no laughing manner.

All organisations, whether governmental, diplomatic, law enforcement, or in traditional business, need to take today’s sophisticated threats serious and adopt a layered defence to reduce the chances of a security breach.

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