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New approach uncovers data abuse on mobile end devices

05 July 2012 University Saarland

“My smartphone knows everything about me, starting with my name, my phone number, my e-mail address, my interests, up to my current location,” explains computer science professor Michael Backes, who manages the Center for IT-Security, Privacy and Accountability at Saarland University. “It even knows my friends quite well, as it saves their contact details, too,” says Backes. Therefore he is not surprised that several mobile applications, also known as apps, display simple functionality up front, while in the background, they send the identification number of the device, the personal whereabouts of the user, or even the contact details of friends, colleagues and customers to a server somewhere in the internet.

The producers of anti-virus software have been making vivid predictions of such scenarios for some time now; in the meantime, scientific studies also prove the threat. A study from the University of California in Santa Barbara (US) concluded that among 825 examined apps for the iPhone and its operating system iOS, 21 percent forward the ID number, four percent the current position, and 0.5 percent even copy the address book.

Michael Backes and his team of researchers now bring this abuse to an end. Their approach focuses on Android. It is the most common operating system for smartphones and tablet computers. Developed by the Google software group, this freely available operating system is used by several mobile phone manufacturers, and since November 2011 is activated daily on more than 700,000 devices.

However, Android is known for its rigorous policy on assignment of privileges. If a user wants to install a downloaded app, he learns via a list which access rights to data (location, contacts, photos) and functions (Internet, locating) will be claimed by that app. Now he has two options: Either he accepts all conditions, or the app will not be installed. After the installation, the privileges cannot be revoked. “Moreover, many developers generally claim all rights for their app because the concept of privileges of Android is misleading, but they want to ensure the smooth functioning of their app nevertheless,” explains Philipp von Styp-Rekowsky, PhD student at the chair in IT security and cryptography.

This “sink-or-swim” strategy is put to rest by the researcher from Saarbrücken. The app “SRT AppGuard” based on their approach determines, for every application installed on a smartphone, what it accesses, and shows this information to the user. Privileges can now be revoked or granted to the respective app at any time. The researchers have already published the app on the platform “Google Play”. It can be downloaded there for free. It runs problem-free on Android 3.x.x and higher. The development of the app has been taken on by the enterprise Backes SRT, which was founded by Backes in 2010. It is also located on the campus in Saarbrücken.

Attached files

  • Professor Michael Backes puts malicious apps on smartphones and tablets under supervision. Credit: Martin Langhorst


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