written by Antoine Neuenschwander
Smartphones have become inseparable companions of our everyday life. They are so cheap nowadays, you can buy commodity devices running Android OS for less than a hundred Swiss francs. Smartphones aren’t mere wireless telephony devices. They are modern computer systems equipped with a variety of sensors: cameras, microphone, GPS receiver, gyroscopes and accelerometers, etc. They also feature multiple wireless communication interfaces such as multi-generation mobile networking, 2.4 and 5 GHz Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, NFC, etc, which make them a polyvalent communication platform with a quasi permanent Internet connection. Another way of looking at it: using all the components typical smartphones are equipped with, they can be fitted as perfect bugging devices.
On November 15th 2016, Kryptowire published a blog post revealing that „several models of Android mobile devices contained a firmware that collected sensitive personal data about their users and transmitted the data to third-party servers without disclosure or the users’ consent“. The sensitive data includes unique device and user identifiers, but also contact lists, call history, installed applications, and under circumstances text messages as well as fine grained location data. The said firmware originates from Adups, a Shanghai-based company specialized in mobile and IoT technologies. It is part of their FOTA product, a commercial replacement of Google’s Over-The-Air upgrade system, which is used to deploy firmware upgrades to the devices (hence the acronym: Firmware Over The Air). The FOTA component is pre-installed on various brands and models of Android devices manufactured in China. Being installed as a system APK, the software has unrestricted access to all data on the device and cannot be uninstalled.