United States government-funded phones come pre-installed with unremovable malware
Posted: January 9, 2020 by Nathan Collier
Last updated: January 8, 2020
A United States–funded mobile carrier that offers phones via the Lifeline Assistance program is selling a mobile device pre-installed with not one, but two malicious applications. Assurance Wireless by Virgin Mobile offers the UMX U686CL phone as their most budget conscious option. At only $35 under the government-funded program, it’s an attractive offering. However, what it comes installed with is appalling.
Not just malicious, but pre-installed
In October 2019, we saw several complaints in our support system from users with a government-issued phone reporting that some of its pre-installed apps were malicious. We purchased a UMX U686CL to better assist our customers and verify their claims.
We informed Assurance Wireless of our findings and asked them point blank why a US-funded mobile carrier is selling a mobile device infected with pre-installed malware? After giving them adequate time to respond, we unfortunately never heard back. Here’s what we discovered.
The first questionable app found on the UMX U686CL poses as an updater named Wireless Update. Yes, it is capable of updating the mobile device. In fact, it’s the only way to update the mobile device’s operating system (OS). Conversely, it is also capable of auto-installing apps without user consent.
Thus, we detect this app as Android/PUP.Riskware.Autoins.Fota.fbcvd, a detection name that should sound familiar to Malwarebytes for Android customers. That’s because the app is actually a variant of Adups, a China-based company caught collecting user data, creating backdoors for mobile devices and, yes, developing auto-installers.
From the moment you log into the mobile device, Wireless Update starts auto-installing apps. To repeat: There is no user consent collected to do so, no buttons to click to accept the installs, it just installs apps on its own. While the apps it installs are initially clean and free of malware, it’s important to note that these apps are added to the device with zero notification or permission required from the user. This opens the potential for malware to unknowingly be installed in a future update to any of the apps added by Wireless Update at any time.
Not just pre-installed, but unremovable
It’s with great frustration that I must write about yet another unremovable pre-installed malicious app found on the UMX U686CL phone: the mobile device’s own Settings app functions as a heavily-obfuscated malware we detect as Android/Trojan.Dropper.Agent.UMX. Because the app serves as the dashboard from which settings are changed, removing it would leave the device unusable.
Android/Trojan.Dropper.Agent.UMX shares characteristics with two other variants of known mobile Trojan droppers. The first characteristic is that it uses the same receiver and service names. The receiver name ends with ALReceiver and the service name ends with ALAJobService. These names alone are too generic to make a solid correlation. But, coupled with the fact that the code is almost identical, and we can confidently confirm a match.
The only difference between the two codes are their variable names. The more discernible variant of this malware uses Chinese characters for variable names. Therefore, we can assume the origin of this malware is China.
Variant of malware with Chinese variable names
The second characteristic it shares is containing an encoded string within the code. Decoding this string reveals a hidden library file named com.android.google.bridge.LibImp.
Decoded string with
Let’s take some time to look at how the code flows while decoding com.android.google.bridge.LibImp . It first grabs the encoded string and decodes using Base64 decoding.
It then loads the decoded library into memory using DexClassLoader .
DexClassLoader loading decoded string
After the library is loaded into memory, it then drops another piece of malware known as Android/Trojan.HiddenAds.
Although we have yet to reproduce the dropping of additional malware ourselves, our users have reported that indeed a variant of HiddenAds suddenly installs on their UMX mobile device.
The malware origin
In addition to the malware being of Chinese origin, it’s noteworthy to mention that this UMX mobile device is made by a Chinese company as well. This could simply be a coincidence rather than explicit malcontent—we cannot confirm if the makers of the device are aware there is Chinese malware pre-installed.
No current resolution
Although we do have a way to uninstall pre-installed apps for current Malwarebytes users, doing so on the UMX has consequences. Uninstall Wireless Update, and you could be missing out on critical updates for the OS. We think that’s worth the tradeoff, and suggest doing so.
But uninstall the Settings app, and you just made yourself a pricey paper weight. We do offer an attempt to remediate such pre-installed malware in our blog: The new landscape of pre-installed mobile malware: malicious code within. See section: Attempting to remediate.
Pre-installed malware getting worse, as foreshadowed
As I have highlighted in this blog and blogs past, pre-installed malware continues to be a scourge for users of mobile devices. But now that there’s a mobile device available for purchase through a US government-funded program, this henceforth raises (or lowers, however you view it) the bar on bad behavior by app development companies.
Budget should not dictate whether a user can remain safe on his or her mobile device. Shell out thousands for an iPhone, and escape pre-installed maliciousness. But use government-assisted funding to purchase a device and pay the price in malware? That’s not the type of malware-free existence we envision at Malwarebytes.
Final words on UMX U686CL
Having an actual UMX U686CL in my hands, I can tell you it is not a bad phone. It feels solid in hand and runs smoothly. Sure, it’s not the fastest mobile device, but it’s a fully capable smart phone. In general, without the malware, this device is a good option for anyone on a budget.
It’s important to realize that UMX isn’t alone. There are many reports of budget manufactures coming pre-installed with malware, and these reports are increasing in number. Although I don’t have the answer to this widespread issue, I can say that US citizens using the Lifeline Assistance Program and many others on a tight budget deserve more. Stay safe out there.
United States government-funded phones come pre-installed with unremovable malware | Malwarebytes Labs
I don’t know if their analysis is legit. The title is clickbait-ish, unless there is a more apparent line between the government and this program; it’s seems more likely the phones are just jacked out the door, and government isn’t great at tracking that kinda thing. Maybe only buy American-made phones? Seems win-win for politicians.
The blog belongs to the group that produces malware-catching warez.
After eyeballing a lot of phone crowdfunding attempts I can say it seems a little common for budget chinese built phones, where there isn’t a big QA presence. So anyway, trying to say that it seems likely. Especially as this sort of thing almost always goes to the lowest bidder who can acquire the cheapest stock.