It’s one thing to guard yourself against smartphone malware, and it’s another to have them already pre-installed on your Android device.
At least 80 malicious plugins were discovered in dozens of Android firmware images. Firmware is usually safe, at least when you use a well-known and distributed brand. However, with Android’s open nature, which allows manufacturers to create various phone models, more affordable phones for customers tend to come with more risks than benefits.
Pre-installed malicious software isn’t something new. Yet, the scales are much higher now, with an estimated 8.9 million infected Android devices flooding the market worldwide. The largest affected markets are in Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia.
The Silent Plugins
The Trend Micro researchers at Black Hat Asia are raising awareness about pre-installed malicious software in Android phones. Budget smartphones, smartwatches, and other less expensive Android devices likely have pre-installed malware in their firmware images.
These silent plugins are bits of code ingrained in firmware images right from the manufacturing process. Most manufacturers are unaware of them as they often appear as legitimate apps. For example, in 2019, 21 million Android devices were discovered to host a pre-installed ad fraud botnet known as Chamois.
Chamois tricked vendors into believing that it was a legitimate ad service. Like Chamois, the newest 2023 malicious silent plugins discovered in budget Android phones can perform multiple functions.
It can allow cybercriminals to steal sensitive user information. This includes: ● Login credentials, location
● Bank account details, text messages
● Generate clicks for affiliate pages and more
One of the senior researchers at Trend Micro states that pre-installed malware is more common nowadays. This is because mobile firmware developers struggle to profit from their products.
Since firmware development is becoming more unprofitable, developers released it for free. Vendors may unwittingly use altered free firmware in their products. Though Trend Micro confirmed ten vendors to have malware pre-installed on their products, about 40 other vendors are suspected. Most of the vendors are Chinese.
Signs of Infection & How To Stay Safe
Nowadays, Android users don’t just risk infecting their devices through downloading certain Google Play Store apps. They are also more susceptible to spyware, fleeceware, adware, and malware from the get-go.
An easy solution to stay safe is to avoid purchasing budget Android smartphones, smartwatches, and other devices. But it’s easier said than done. First, you need to be aware of some of the signs of fake and malicious apps, such as:
● Having unfamiliar or suspicious app icons you don’t recognize on your device. Especially if they don’t belong to reputable app developers or brands
● The app requires excessive permissions or requests unnecessary ones ● Poor user reviews and ratings
● Unexpected advertisements that also pop up outside the app’s expected functionality ● Battery drain and performance issues
● Data usage spikes
● Inability to uninstall or disable the app
Second, pay more attention to what you are buying and stay informed. Although the above signs can help you spot malware on your device, there are several other things you can do. Here is how to boost your cybersecurity on your Android smartphone.
Use a VPN
Android smartphone users should consider using a VPN service. It can boost your online security significantly. A VPN encrypts your internet traffic data. This helps protect your data from being intercepted or tampered with by malware or other malicious actors.
Even if malware is present on your device, the VPN’s encryption will safeguard your sensitive information. Some VPN providers also offer features such as malware filtering and protection, which are useful for detecting and blocking known malware threats.
You can use a VPN to provide an extra layer of security against pre-installed malware or other malicious activities. To have this software work on your Android device, use a VPN APK. An APK is a file format that helps you install apps on your Android devices.
Install Antivirus and Antimalware
Antivirus and antimalware smartphone apps can provide real-time scanning for the newest threats. This includes viruses, malware, and secure web browsing. They also come with anti-theft features. Yet, select these antivirus and antimalware apps with care. Hackers have even created fake cybersecurity tools.
Keep Software Updated
The Android operating system and its applications need constant updates. This is to ensure the smooth flow of their functions and for security purposes. Updates often address known vulnerabilities and protect your device from potential threats.