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by John E Dunn

Mobile adware networks given 45 days to stop misbehaving by security firm

May 15, 20133 mins
Cellular NetworksComputers and PeripheralsConsumer Electronics

Lookout threatens blacklisting for ad-littered apps

Misbehaving adware buried inside mobile apps has turned into such a problem that security vendor Lookout Mobile Security has published a deadline for networks to change their behaviour or face blacklisting.

In a blog the firm said it planned to start blacklisting mobile apps that breached its list of unacceptable behaviour; grabbing personally identifiable information from users, performing unexpected actions when users click on ads, and displaying ads outside the “normal in-app experience.”

Apps that played fast and loose with any one of these without gaining consent first would be classified as adware for users of its Android, Apple and Kindle security app as of 24 June, 2013.

“Currently, there is inconsistency in the way adware is classified by the mobile industry. This lack of clarity gets in the way of tackling the problem,” wrote Lookout’s security product manager, Jeremy Linden.

The company defined “consent” as being the open disclosure of an app’s behaviours with a clear mechanism for the user to accept or decline, he said.

“The notice must be on its own, must not be part of a blanket terms of service, and above the fold.”

Currently, a growing number of apps were exploiting a industry guidelines as to how ads could be “pushed” to users with some going as far as to interfere with the user’s software environment, modifying settings such as icons and ringtones, embedding shortcuts and even changing a browser’s default homepage.

“Lookout considers collection of personally identifiable information unusual and generally unnecessary for collection by ad networks,” added Linden.

By exploiting the lack of detailed policies as to what was acceptable, rogue ad networks risked undermining legitimate businesses, not least the app developers whose apps they used to get onto devices.

There is plenty of anecdotal and research evidence that adware is becoming more aggressive, a phenomenon that ramped up in 2012 as app downloads exploded. Apps that are themselves innocent come bundled with adware inside them that happily bends inconsistent rules. App marketplaces find this sort of behaviour harder to police, hence the rise in its occurrence.

Much of the current adware come inside Android games, including some that have, surprisingly, become quite popular despite this. Ant Smasher was identified last September as being a prime example by fellow security firm BitDefender.

Last month Lookout itself raised the issue of the more extreme abuses of adware networks by publicising the BadNews mobile malware, a sort of mobile botnet that has recently sneaked on to devices by “hiding” inside legitimate apps. Once activated the apps were updated (including through Google Play which now bans third-party updates) with new features that could render the apps suddenly malevolent.