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How your phone became hostage to ransomware

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DOROS HADJIZENONOS, Country Manager of Check Point South Africa, explores why mobile ransomware has become the biggest mobile security threat, and how users can guard against it.

Imitation is a quick way to learn, which is why mobile malware is evolving so rapidly – it frequently imitates attack behaviours and trends that were first trialled and proven to work in the PC world.  Mobile ransomware is following this path, with the aim of replicating the success that PC-based ransomware has had in extorting money from individuals and organisations.  So it’s no surprise that the number of mobile ransomware variants detected in Q1 2016 grew 45% compared with Q4 2015.

Like its cousins that target PCs, mobile ransomware has become more complex and malicious in the way it works, too.  The first mobile ransomware types were ‘screen blockers’, which displayed prominent alerts and made normal interaction with the screen impossible – similar to lock-screen PC ransomware.  First seen in 2013, the malware posed as anti-virus software and informed victims their device was infected, demanding they purchased a full version of the software to ‘disinfect’ the device and make it usable again.

In 2014 the first mobile ransomware which encrypts files was detected, again following the success of Windows cryptolocker-style malware.  The most recent mobile ransomware type is the Pin locker, which emerged in 2015.  One example, called PornDroid, pretends to be a porn player, and tricks the user into granting it Admin privileges.  Once it has these, the malware changes users’ Pin codes, locking them out of their devices and displaying a ransom message.  We conducted a detailed investigation into how this type of ransomware worked, and we found one variant had infected tens of thousands of devices, with some victims paying $200 to $500 to unlock their data and regain control of the device.

The device divide

While mobile ransomware currently targets Android devices almost exclusively – largely because iOS devices need to be jailbroken in order to download apps from sources other than Apple’s App Store, making them harder to infect – there has been a case in which iOS users were extorted. In 2015, attackers exploited stolen credentials to log into users’ iCloud accounts and remotely locked their devices, and demand ransoms to release them.  And in March 2016, the first ransomware targeting Apple Macs, KeRanger, was discovered, so we should expect to see ransomware targeting iOS devices soon.

Check your privilege

Currently, mobile ransomware focuses on locking users out of the device, because the mobile operating systems do not allow malware to access all the device’s areas of memory or storage.  However, the privilege escalation exploits referenced earlier point clearly to the next step in ransomware evolution, using techniques to gain ‘root’ privileges on the device which effectively give the criminal complete control of the infected phone or tablet.

Most methods for rooting the device rely on exploiting vulnerabilities either in the OS, the hardware, or individual applications.  Unfortunately, these vulnerabilities are widespread:  over the past 6 months, over half of Android patches released by Google are for securing devices against privilege escalation exploits – so we can expect to see more ransomware targeting these flaws to gain elevated privileges over the next year.

How can I protect my devices?

The most fundamental principle of mobile device security is never to root or jailbreak your phone – in other words, to avoid deliberate privilege escalations that could then leave you open to malicious ones that may harbour ransomware.   A robust security solution should also be applied.  Enterprises should select a mobile device management (MDM) solution – but all MDMs are not equal.  Some are able to identify when a phone has been deliberately rooted by a user, but not when it has been rooted by malware – and some more advanced malware can disguise itself against such inspection.

A more effective approach is to quarantine and inspect any suspicious apps or attachments in the cloud, before downloading them to the device.  This blocks the main vector for privilege escalation, which is from rogue apps.

The mobile threat prevention solution should use a number of components working together to respond to the most common mobile attack vectors. Devices must be continually analyzed to uncover system vulnerabilities and unusual behaviour.  Monitoring configuration and behaviour analysis can help identify root access attempts as outlined above.  And any downloaded apps must be inspected for the unique binary signatures for known malware; they should also be captured and reverse-engineered for code-flow analysis to expose suspicious behaviour.

And don’t overlook simple steps such as regularly backing-up data on your device so that if the worst does happen, you can recover your files without having to pay.

Help! I’ve already been infected

Unfortunately, there may be little you can do, which is why it’s important to perform regular backups of the data stored on your mobile device.  You should certainly avoid paying any ransom, and take your device to a mobile security specialist rather than attempting to decrypt it yourself. But ultimately, when it comes to mobile ransomware, prevention is by far the best protection.

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Android Go puts reliable smartphones in budget pockets

Nokia, Vodacom and Huawei have all launched entry-level smartphones running the Android Go edition, and all deliver a smooth experience, writes BRYAN TURNER.

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Three new and notable Android Go smartphones have recently hit the market, namely the Nokia 1, the Vodafone Smart Kicka 4 and the Huawei Y3 (2018). These phones run one of the most basic versions of Android while still delivering a fairly smooth user experience.

Historically, consumers purchasing smartphones in the budget bracket would have a hit-and-miss experience with processing speed, smoothness of user interface, and app stability. The Google-supported Android Go edition operating system optimises the user experience by stripping out non-important visual effects to speed up the phone. Thish allows for more memory to be used by apps. 

Google also ensures that all smartphones running Android Go will receive feature and security updates as they are released by Google. This is a major selling point for these smartphones, as users of this smartphone will always be running the latest software, with virtually no manufacturer bloatware.

Vodafone Smart Kicka 4

At the lowest entry-level, the Vodafone Smart Kicka 4 performs well as a communicator for emails and WhatsApp messages. The 4” screen represents a step up for entry-level Android phones, which were previously standardised at 3.5”.

The display is bright and very responsive, while the limited screen real estate leaves the navigation keys off the screen as touch buttons. It uses 3G connectivity, which might seem like an outdated technology, but is good enough to stream SD videos and music. Vodacom has also thrown in some data gifts if the smartphone is activated before the end of September 2018. 

Its camera functionalities might be a slight let down for the aspirant Instagrammer, with a 2MP rear flash camera and a 0.3MP selfie snapper. Speed wise, the keyboard pops up quickly, which is a huge improvement from the Smart Kicka 3. However, this phone will not play well with graphics-intensive games. 

Nokia 1

Next up is the Nokia 1, which adds a much better 5MP camera, improved battery life and a bigger 4.5” screen. It supports LTE, which allows this smartphone to download and upload at the speed of flagships. It also sports the Nokia brand name, which many consumers trust.

Although the front camera is 2MP, the quality is extremely grainy, even with good lighting. This disqualifies this smartphone for the social media selfie snapper, but the 5MP rear camera will work for the landscape and portrait photographer. 

The screen also redeems this smartphone, providing a display which represents colours truly and has great viewing angles. Xpress-on back covers allows the use of interchangeable, multi-coloured back covers, which has proven to be a successful sales point for mid-range smartphones in the past. 

Huawei Y3 (2018)

The most capable of the Android Go edition competitors, the Huawei Y3 (2018) packs an even bigger screen at 5”, as well as an improved 8MP rear camera and HD video recording. The screen is the brightest and most vibrant of the three smartphones, but seems to be calibrated to show colours a little more saturated than they actually are. 

Nevertheless, the camera outperforms the other smartphones with good colour replication and great selfie capabilities via the 2MP front camera – far superior to the Nokia 1 despite the same spec. LTE also comes standard with this smartphone and Vodacom throws in 4G/LTE data goodies until the end of September 2018. The battery, however, is not removable and may only be replaced by a warranty technician.

Comparing the 3

All three smartphones have removable back covers, which provide access to the battery, SIM card and SD card slots. The smartphones have Micro USB ports on the bottom with headphone jacks on the top. The built-in speakers all performed well, with the Y3 (2018) housing an exceptionally loud built-in speaker. 

Although all at different price points, all three phones remain similar in performance and speed. The differentiators are apparent in the components, like camera quality and screen quality. It would be fair to rank the quality of the camera and battery life by respective market prices. The Vodafone Smart Kicka 4 performed well, for its R399 retail price. The Nokia 1, on the other hand, lags quite a bit in features when compared to the Huawei Y3 (2018), bwith oth retailing at R999.

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SA gets digital archive

As the world entered the centenary of Nelson Mandela’s birth on Mandela Day, 18 July 2018, South Africa celebrated the launch of a digital living archive. 

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The southafrica.co.za  site carries content about the country’s collective heritage in South Africa’s eleven official languages.

Designed as a nation building,  educational and brand promotion web based tool, the free-to-view platform features award-winning photographic and written content by leading South African photographers, authors, academics and photojournalists.

The emphasis is on quality, credible, factual content that celebrates a collective heritage in terms of the following: Cultural Heritage; Natural Heritage; Education; History; Agriculture; Industry; Mining; and Travel.

At the same time as reflecting on the nation’s history, southafrica.co.za celebrates South Africa’s natural, cultural and economic assets so that the youth can learn about their nation in their home language.

Southafrica.co.za Founder and CEO Hans Gerrizen conceptualised southafrica.co.za as a means for youth and communities from outlying areas to benefit from the digital age in terms of the web tool’s empowering educational component.

“We can only stand to deepen our collective experience of democracy and become a more forward planning nation if we know facts about our nation’s past and present in everyone’s home language,” he says.

Southafrica.co.za, with sister company Siyabona Africa, is the organiser and sponsor of the Mandela: 100 Moments photographic exhibition that runs until 30 September at Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront-based Nelson Mandela Gateway to Robben Island.  The 3-month exhibition, which runs daily from 08h00 until 15h00, is showcasing one hundred iconic Nelson Mandela images taken by veteran South African photojournalist and self-taught lensman Peter Magubane.

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