Security research labels more than 290,000 Google Play Android apps as 'high-risk'

Security vendor Bit9 is compiling a 'reputation' database of Android apps and will move on to app stores from Apple and Amazon

One-quarter of more than 400,000 Android apps examined in the Google Play store pose security risks to mobile-device users, according to new research.

Security vendor Bit9 categorized these Android apps as "questionable" or "suspicious" because they could gain access to personal information to collect GPS data, phone calls, or phone numbers and much more after the user granted "permission" to the app. "You have to say 'yes' to the application or it won't run," pointed out Harry Sverdlove, Bit9 CTO. Games, entertainment, and wallpaper apps especially seem to want to grab data, even though the their functions would seem to have little direct use for it.

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Bit9 notes this doesn't mean these apps are malware per se, but they could do damage if compromised because the user has granted so much permission.

There are said to be about 600,000 apps in Google Play, and Sverdlove says Bit9 is now compiling a "reputation" database of Android apps. The firm is also going to move on to other app stores, including those from Apple and Amazon, in order to create mobile security products that can protect users based on risk-scoring of apps. 

Reputation-based approaches have become commonly used throughout the security industry for protecting Web users, for example, against malware-infested sites, and now there's interest in applying similar ideas to analyzing risk associated with mobile apps.

Broken down, Bit9 categorized these "questionable" and "suspicious" apps it found in Google Play this way:

  • 42 percent access GPS location data, and these include wallpapers, games and utilities
  • 31 percent access phone calls or phone numbers
  • 26 percent access personal data, such as contacts and email
  • 9 percent use permissions that can cost the user money

In its report, Bit9 describes its methodology as crawling Google Play to collect detailed information about 412,000 mobile apps, including publisher, popularity, user rating, category, number of downloads, requested permissions and price.

Of the 412,222 Android apps evaluated from Google Play, Bit9 says more than 290,000 of them access at least one high-risk permission, 86,000 access five or more and 8,000 apps access 10 or more permissions "flagged as potentially dangerous." It defined risk level according to relative degrees of privacy intrusion and the app's feature set, perhaps the ability to wipe devices or change systems settings.

The study also included a survey of 138 IT professionals responsible for mobile security for over 400,000 users in their organizations. It found:

  • 78 percent think phone makers do not focus enough on security, but 71 percent allow employee-owned devices to access their organization's network.
  • Only 24 percent deploy some form of app monitoring or control to grant visibility into employees' devices.
  • 84 percent feel Apple iOS is "more secure" than Android and 93 percent of respondents allow iOS to access their network. Only 77 percent allow Android devices, and in something of a surprise, 13 percent say they allow rooted Android or "jailbroken" iPhone devices onto their networks.
  • 96 percent allowing personal devices also allow employees to access email using the device, while 85 percent allow access to company calendar data.

The potential for trouble in all this, according to Bit9, is that apps that can access all this user data could become the open door for hackers to exploit in the future.

Ellen Messmer is senior editor at Network World, an IDG publication and website, where she covers news and technology trends related to information security. Twitter: @MessmerE. Email: emessmer@nww.com.

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This story, "Security research labels more than 290,000 Google Play Android apps as 'high-risk'" was originally published by Network World.

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