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Beware: Free Google Play Flashlight Apps Could Cost You

malicious-apps

March 24, 2015

By Stephanie Kent
Investigative Research Assistant

Why would you go to the store and pay $0.99 for a flashlight keychain when you could just download a free flashlight app from the Google Play Store? Perhaps because the latter could cost you your privacy, your identity and thousands more dollars in the long run.

Researchers have found that the most popular flashlight applications are secretly stealing personal data stored on users’ mobile devices. Gary Miliefsky, cybersecurity expert and CEO of SnoopWall, has called this issue “bigger than Ebola,” as he explains that “500 million people are infected without knowing it.” Based on his company’s research, Mr. Miliefsky asserts that “the top ten flashlight apps from the Google Play Store are all malware; they’re all malicious; they’re all spying; they’re all snooping; they’re all stealing.” It’s a costly assumption that these applications solely function as flashlights. Upon one click of the app, they can access and store any information you have ever entered on your device. Masses of such stolen data have been tracked and linked to three countries: China, India and Russia. Mr. Miliefsky states that this personal information is primarily used for criminal purposes, but also provides nation states an easy way to collect information on Americans.¹

How do they get away with this?

Let me refer you to a recent lawsuit: the Brightest Flashlight application was sued by the FTC for this malicious activity. As part of the settlement, Brightest Flashlight agreed to construct a 25-page Privacy Policy essentially stating that by accepting the terms and conditions, the user is allowing the application to access all personal data stored on the device. At the time of the lawsuit, Brightest Flashlight had 50 million downloads. Now, it has approximately 100 million downloads. Clearly, people are not reading the Privacy Policy.

What are the top-ten flashlight apps from the Google Play Store that have access to personal information?

 1. Super-Bright LED (Surpax Technology Inc.)
 2. Brightest Flashlight Free (GoldenShores Technologies, LLC)
 3. Tiny Flashlight + LED (Nikolay Ananiev)
 4. Flashlight (Zerone Mobile)
 5. Flashlight (Mobile Apps Inc)
 6. Brightest LED Flashlight (Intellectual Flame Co., Ltd.)
 7. Color Flashlight (Notes)
 8. High-Powered Flashlight (iHandy Inc.)
 9. Flashlight HD LED (smallte.ch)
10. Flashlight: LED Torch Light (Mobile Apps Inc)

What if I have already downloaded a malicious app?

First, uninstall the application from your device(s). Then, backup your crucial data (family photos, contacts, etc.). Finally, take your phone in for a factory reset, which will wipe hidden data areas where malicious trojans have been installed by the application.

Note: Simply uninstalling the app is not always sufficient, as trojans often operate in the background while you do important things on your phone, like mobile banking or online shopping!

How do we know which apps are safe?

1. Read the privacy policies! That means scroll and read through every page, and make sure they aren’t blatantly telling you they’re going to access your personal information.
2. Take note of the application size. Ex: Safe flashlight apps should be under 100KB. The malicious flashlight apps are generally 1.2+MB. Any flashlight around 1.2MB or larger is suspect – that is an abnormally large file to just turn a light on and off.
3. Know the features to which each app is requesting access. If the app requests information beyond the requirements for that particular app function, don’t install it!
Ex: If Google Maps wants access to your GPS, that makes sense! However, if Angry Birds or Candy Crush (for example) wants access to your GPS, you should be skeptical!

Note: 82% of malicious apps send, receive, read or write SMS messages. Very few legitimate apps require any SMS permissions; 10% of spying apps ask for permission to install other apps – another unlikely requirement of legitimate apps.²

How can we protect our smartphones and ourselves from eavesdroppers and privacy breaches?

Common sense goes a long way when it comes to protecting our personal information. In order to accept this responsibility, we must recognize that our smartphones can be serious threats if not properly protected. Take the following free and easy steps to better safeguard your smartphone:

1. Disable your GPS and Bluetooth after each use. They should never be running when it’s not necessary.
2. Permanently disable your NFC (Near Field Communications) or, on Apple devices, your iBeacon.
3. Verify all app requirements and privacy risks before installing. Do some research and ask yourself “why is this app requesting access to my GPS, microphone, webcam, contacts, etc.?” Most apps only use these ports if they intend to invade your privacy. Don’t install these risky applications – there are usually safe alternatives.
4. iPhone users: Go to “Settings” > “Privacy” and see which apps request which information. You may switch a particular application to “Off” if you do not want it linking to certain data (like your contacts or photos, for example).
5. Either cover your webcam and microphone or disable your smartphone when you are not using it. This may sound extreme, but it will ensure your personal safety. It’s better to err on the side of caution when it comes to identity theft!³

If you or your organization has fallen victim to any malicious cyber activity, contact Jennings Smith Associates toll-free today at 866-629-3757 for a free consultation or visit us online at www.jsainvestigations.com.

Sources:
¹https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q8xz8xKEFvU
²https://www.websense.com/assets/reports/websense-2013-threat-report.pdf
³http://www.snoopwall.com/threat-reports-10-01-2014/

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