Should you be worried about Android malware pre-installed on phones you buy?
Malware can do a lot of scary things: your money, your documents, even your identity can be taken from you. But on Android smartphones the threat posed by malicious apps has largely seemed manageable, so long as users take certain precautions, like not sideloading apps without trusting the devs behind them, and sticking to mainstream app stores. But now we’re hearing about a troubling new wrinkle in the war on malware, with reports suggesting that some phones are being sold with such nasty apps present; is there cause for concern?
Here’s what’s going on: a security firm got some complaints from a client that the firm’s software was flagging a legitimate app as malware. It took a closer look, and saw that the “Netflix” app in question was indeed malware, designed to steal user data. The client insisted that the fake Netflix app was already installed when he bought the phone.
On subsequent analysis, the security firm found the same phony app on a number of models from different manufacturers, including Samsung, Motorola, ASUS, and LG.
What we haven’t seen, though, is actual proof that this malware is showing on straight-from-the-factory, retail-purchased handsets. Could such apps make their way onto phones sold second-hand? Sure. Or what about installed by some unscrupulous tech at a repair shop? It’s possible. But allegations that malware is being added as part of the legitimate retail supply chain, whether that’s at the carrier level or somewhere else, are the sort of fantastic claim that requires fantastic proof.
Right now, we just haven’t seen anything like that, and if this malware was really being introduced in the way being implied in these reports, we’d imagine we’d be hearing about its discovery on thousands upon thousands of handsets, rather than the handful of isolated cases mentioned here. That’s not to say that there’s nothing to these accounts, but in the absence of more damning evidence, panic might be premature.