Home Hacker News Chinese mobile firmware that transmitted sensitive data witho consent detected
Chinese mobile firmware that transmitted sensitive data witho consent detected

Chinese mobile firmware that transmitted sensitive data witho consent detected



Tuesday November 15, 2016

Kryptowire has identified several models of Android mobile devices that contained firmware that collected sensitive
personal data about their users and transmitted this sensitive data to third-party servers without disclosure or
the users’ consent. These devices were available through major US-based online retailers (Amazon, BestBuy, for example)
and included popular smartphones such as the BLU R1 HD. These devices actively transmitted user and device information
including the full-body of text messages, contact lists, call history with full telephone numbers, unique device
identifiers including the International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) and the International Mobile Equipment
Identity (IMEI). The firmware could target specific users and text messages matching remotely defined keywords.
The firmware also collected and transmitted information about the use of applications installed on the monitored
device, bypassed the Android permission model, executed remote commands with escalated (system) privileges, and was
able to remotely reprogram the devices.

The firmware that shipped with the mobile devices and subsequent updates allowed for the remote installation of
applications without the users’ consent and, in some versions of the software, the transmission of fine-grained
device location information. The core of the monitoring activities took place using a commercial Firmware Over
The Air (FOTA) update software system that was shipped with the Android devices we tested and were managed by a
company named Shanghai Adups Technology Co. Ltd.

Our findings are based on both code and network analysis of the firmware. The user and device information was
collected automatically and transmitted periodically without the users’ consent or knowledge. The collected
information was encrypted with multiple layers of encryption and then transmitted over secure web protocols to
a server located in Shanghai. This software and behavior bypasses the detection of mobile anti-virus tools because
they assume that software that ships with the device is not malware and thus, it is white-listed.

In September 2016, Adups claimed on its web site to have a world-wide presence with over 700 million active users,
and a market share exceeding 70% across over 150 countries and regions with offices in Shanghai, Shenzhen, Beijing,
Tokyo, New Delhi, and Miami. The Adups web site also stated that it produces firmware that is integrated in more
than 400 leading mobile operators, semiconductor vendors, and device manufacturers spanning from wearable and
mobile devices to cars and televisions.

Figure 1. Comparison of Adups with 2011 CarrierIQ capabilities based on publicly available sources.

In Figure 1, we compare our findings with the data collection capabilities of Carrier IQ’s software in November
of 2011 that offered a comprehensive suite of analytics for wireless network and device performance. The CarrierIQ
case created a lot of public debate and was the subject of an investigation by the FTC and other government agencies.

We analyzed the Personally Identifiable Information (PII) collected and transmitted in an encrypted format to servers
in Shanghai including one of the bestselling unlocked smartphones sold by major online retailers.

Moreover, some transmitted the body of the user’s text messages and call logs to a server in located in Shanghai. All
of the data collection and transmission capabilities we identified were supported by two system applications that
cannot be disabled by the end user. These system applications have the following package names:

  1. com.adups.fota.sysoper
  2. com.adups.fota

The data collection and transmission capability is spread across different applications and files. The data
transmission occurred every 72 hours for text messages and call log information, and every 24 hours for other PII data.
The information was transmitted to the following back-end server domains:

  • bigdata.adups.com (primary)
  • bigdata.adsunflower.com
  • bigdata.adfuture.cn
  • bigdata.advmob.cn

All of the above domains resolved to a common IP address: that belongs to the Adups company.
During our analysis, bigdata.adups.com was the domain that received the majority of the information whereas
rebootv5.adsunflower.com with IP address: was the domain that can issue remote commands with
elevated privileges to the mobile devices.

Before the data transmission occurs the device checks in with a remote server using a REST API and is instructed
on what to collect. It is worth noting that the REST endpoint differs for various phone manufacturers and even
phone models. Below is an example of a check-in response:

    "json": {
        "keys": [
                "given": "0",
                "keyword": "",
                "type": "1"
        "poll_cycle": "24"
    "md5": " B865B089A298D529B4602A3D359FE4C8"

Files Description
DcApp.json Apps that the user has installed on the device
DcAppOp.json Android App Ops data
DcMobileStatus.json Diagnostic data
DcRootInfo.json A listing of files in the /system/bin and /system/xbin directories
DcTellMessage.json The user’s call log (and numbers people the user has texted)
dc_app_flow.json The order in which a user uses apps
dc_msg_key.json The content of the user’s text messages
Figure 2. List of files uploaded to bigdata.adups.com during our analysis.

It is worth noting that user’s text messages are encrypted using DES. Below is an example entry of
the dc_msg_key.json file:

    "dc_date": "2016-09-13 17:01:07",
    "dc_type": "1",
    "keyword": "HUnrP/GTiH/aEPM8bVXmaw==",
    "md5": "B865B089A298D529B4602A3D359FE4C8",
    "msg_date": "1473798497903",
    "msg_type": "1",
    "tell": "+1540XXXXXXX"

During our analysis we identified the necessary key to encrypt and decrypt these messages. The aforementioned
entry in plaintext is: “Be there in 5”.

As smartphones are ubiquitous and, in many cases, a business necessity, our findings underscore the need for
more transparency at every stage of the supply chain and increased consumer awareness. Kryptowire has developed
tools aimed at detecting non-compliant software that can violate privacy and security policies that are not
necessarily classified as malware. In many cases, these applications are benign, but exhibit behavior
non-compliant with organizational, industry, and government policies.

Kryptowire has communicated its findings with respect to the affected devices with Google, Amazon, Adups, and BLU Products, Inc.

Manufacturers that believe their devices may be affected can contact
[email protected] for additional information.

Consumers that believe their devices may be affected can refer to the manufacturer warranty or retailer
terms of purchase for more information.

About Kryptowire

Kryptowire was jumpstarted by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the Department of
Homeland Security (DHS S&T). Kryptowire provides mobile application security analysis tools, anti-piracy technologies,
mobile app marketplace security analytics, and Enterprise Mobility Management (EMM) solutions. Kryptowire was
founded in 2011, is based in Fairfax, Virginia, and has a customer base ranging from government agencies
to national cable TV companies.

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