Monitoring Vulnaggressive Apps on Google Play

Vulnaggressive Characteristics in Mobile Apps and Libraries

FireEye mobile security researchers have discovered a rapidly-growing class of mobile threats represented by popular ad libraries affecting apps with billions of downloads. These ad libraries are aggressive at collecting sensitive data and able to perform dangerous operations such as downloading and running new code on demand. They are also plagued with various classes of vulnerabilities that enable attackers to turn their aggressive behaviors against users. We coined the term “vulnaggressive” to describe this class of vulnerable and aggressive characteristics. We have published some of our findings in our two recent blogs about these threats: “Ad Vulna: A Vulnaggressive (Vulnerable & Aggressive) Adware Threatening Millions” and “Update: Ad Vulna Continues”.

As we reported in our earlier blog “Update: Ad Vulna Continues”, we have observed that some vulnaggressive apps have been removed from Google Play, and some app developers have upgraded their apps to a more secure version either by removing the vulnaggressive libraries entirely or by upgrading the relevant libraries to a more secure version which address the security issues. However, many app developers are still not aware of these security issues and have not taken such needed steps. We need to make a community effort to help app developers and library vendors to be more aware of these security issues and address them in a timely fashion.

To aid this community effort, we present the data to illustrate the changes over time as vulnaggressive apps are upgraded to a more secure version or removed from Google Play after our notification. We summarize our observations below, although we do not have specific information about the reasons that caused these changes we are reporting.

We currently only show the chart for one such vulnaggressive library, AppLovin (previously referred to by us as Ad Vulna for anonymity). We will add the charts for other vulnaggressive libraries as we complete our notification/disclosure process and the corresponding libraries make available new versions that fix the issues.

The Chart of Apps Affected by AppLovin

AppLovin (Vulna)’s vulnerable versions include 3.x, 4.x and 5.0.x. AppLovin 5.1 fixed most of the reported security issues. We urge app developers to upgrade AppLovin to the latest version and ask their users to update their apps as soon as the newer versions are available.

The figure below illustrates the change over time of the status of vulnerable apps affected by AppLovin on Google Play. In particular, we collect and depict the statistics of apps that we have observed on Google Play with at least 100k downloads and with at least one version containing the vulnerable versions of AppLovin starting September 20. Over time, a vulnerable app may be removed by Google Play (which we call “removed apps”, represented in gray), have a new version available on Google Play that addresses the security issues either by removing AppLovin entirely or by upgrading the embedded AppLovin to 5.1 or above (which we call “upgradable apps”, represented in green), or remain vulnerable (which we call “vulnerable apps”, represented in red), as shown in the legend in the chart.

Please note that we started collecting the data of app removal from Google Play on October 20, 2013. Thus, any relevant app removal between September 20 and October 20 will be counted and shown on October 20. Also, for each app included in the chart, Google Play shows a range of its number of downloads, e.g., between 1M and 5M. We use the lower end of the range in our download count so the statistics we show are conservative estimates.

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We are glad to see that over time, many vulnerable apps have been either removed from Google Play or have more secure versions available on Google Play. However, apps with hundreds of millions of downloads in total still remain vulnerable. In addition, note that while removing vulnaggressive apps from Google Play prevents more people from being affected, the millions of devices that already downloaded them remain vulnerable since they are not automatically removed from the devices. Furthermore, because many users do not update their downloaded apps often and older versions of Android do not auto-update apps, even after the new, more secure version of a vulnerable app is available on Google Play, millions of users of these apps will remain vulnerable until they update to the new versions of these apps on their devices. FireEye recently announced FireEye Mobile Threat Prevention. It is uniquely capable of protecting its customers from such threats.