Covert Android App Communications May Share Secret Data

A lot of information gets transferred back and forth after users launch mobile apps, but only some of it is related to the actual tasks they're trying to execute. In fact, researchers have been unable to find any obvious reasons for nearly half of the communications that take place after users launch some of the most popular Android apps.

Researchers have found that "covert communication is quite common in top-popular Android applications in the Google Play store (pictured)," according to Julia Rubin, a post-doctoral researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, who led the research. In addition, after disabling all covert communication channels in 47 top apps, the research team found there was no noticeable impact on how most of those apps performed.

So what kinds of communications are taking place when users run popular apps? While about half of those behind-the-scenes communications appear to be related to analytics packages providing usage and performance feedback to developers, the rest remain a mystery.

Communication Purposes a Mystery

"There might be a very good reason for this covert communication," Rubin said. "We are not trying to say that it has to be eliminated. We're just saying the user needs to be informed."

Starting with the 500 most popular free Android apps, the research team analyzed the communication channels that were opened after each app was launched. Roughly 50 percent of those communications didn't appear to have any connections to the user experience.

After disabling the ability of each app to initiate covert communications, the researchers ran usability tests to compare how the modified and unmodified apps performed. In 30 out of 47 apps, test subjects couldn't identify any difference between how the apps performed. Just five apps stopped working completely, while nine continued operating but were missing...

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