Location tracking Android spyware found in Google Play store

The SMS malware enables attackers to pinpoint the exact location of infected victims.


Image: iStock

Android malware capable of accessing the location of smartphone users and sending it to cyberattackers remained undetected in the Google Play store three years according to a security company.

Discovered by cybersecurity researchers at Zscaler, the SMSVova Android spyware poses as a system update in the Play Store and was downloaded between one million and five million times since it first appeared in 2014.

The app claims to give users access to the latest Android system updates, but it’s actually malware designed to compromise the victims’ smartphone and provide the users’ exact location in real-time.

Researchers become suspicious of the application, partially because of a string of negative reviews complaining that the app doesn’t update the Android OS and causes phones to run slowly and drains battery life. Other indicators which led to Zscaler looking into the app including blank screenshots on the store page and no proper description for what the app actually does.

Indeed, the only information the store page provided about the ‘System Update’ app is that it ‘updates and enables special location’ features. It doesn’t tell the user what it’s really doing – that it’ll send location information to a third party, a tactic which it exploits to spy on targets.

SMSVova in the Google Play store.


Image: Zscaler

Once the user has downloaded the app and attempts to run it, they’re immediately met with a message stating “Unfortunately, Update Service has stopped” and the app hides its run icon from the device screen.

But the app hasn’t failed, but rather the spyware sets up a feature called MyLocationService to fetch the last known location of the user and set it up in Shared Preferences, the Android interface for accessing and modifying data.

The app also sets up an IncomingSMS receiver to scan for specific incoming text messages which contain instructions for the malware. For example, if the attacker sends a text saying “get faq” to the device, the spyware responds with commands for further attacks or passwording the spyware with ‘Vova’ – hence the name of the malware.

Zscaler researchers suggest that the reliance on SMS to start up the malware is the reason that antivirus software failed to detect the malware at any point during the last three years.

Once the malware is fully set up, the spyware is capable of sending the device location to the attacker – although who the attackers are and why they want the location information of regular Android users remains a mystery.

The app hasn’t been updated since December 2014, but it’s still infected hundreds of thousands of victims since then and as researchers…

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