In an age of online second-hand retailers, marketplace exchanges, and third-party refurb shops, it’s easier than ever to save hundreds of dollars when buying a phone. These channels provide an appealing alternative for people foregoing a retail shopping experience for a hefty discount.
However, there is an additional option for those bargain hunters seeking even more savings: counterfeits of popular phone models. These knock-offs have become a burgeoning industry, transforming cheap hardware and free software into mass profits at almost no cost to the manufacturers. These clones often sell at under 1/10th of the retail price and are often very convincing replicas at first glance.
Last year, we helped Motherboard Vice with an investigative teardown of a counterfeit iPhone X. We were haunted by the many security concerns and vulnerabilities we’d discovered, so we worked with DeviceAssure—a company dedicated to anti-counterfeit solutions for mobile platform—to do a deeper dive into these dangerous duplicates.
This post details what we found and provides some insight into exactly what you are getting when you use one of these phones. Whether it’s intentional malice or just dangerous ineptitude, there is plenty to be concerned about!
We looked at two counterfeits: an iPhone 6 and a Samsung S10.
The visual aesthetic of the devices are very convincing. Proper attention to peripheral layout, dimensions, and overall finish is almost identical to their retail counterparts. The various switches and buttons correspond to what you would expect in the real devices to control the phone lock, adjust the volume, and turn them on and off. The counterfeit iPhone even uses a lightning cable in its charge port!
Both models are equipped with haptic feedback and fingerprint sensors that do indeed work … mostly. Facial biometrics are also included, though they had a considerably higher failure rate and would often not work at all.
From an initial glance at the underlying guts, both devices rely on controllers from Mediatek, a Chinese hardware company that provides an ARM chipset for embedded devices that is both incredibly cheap and reasonably capable. They also rely, as many counterfeits do, on custom, largely community-built ROMs of the Android runtime—a telltale sign that functionality will be non-standard and rife with one of hundreds of variant-specific quirks.
The Good – They look and work somewhat like the real thing… sometimes
You get a phone that looks and works vaguely like the one it counterfeited, with a few exceptions. What’s good other than that?
No really, even if these devices had hypothetically sported pristine ROMs (which, hint: they didn’t), they still came with a slew of critical problems, even if they weren’t outright backdoored with preinstalled malware (which, hint: they were).
We can give a C+ for effort to some of the detail rendered into the system UI. A good majority of modal popups and panel settings are faithfully intercepted and recreated using extensions to the native resource framework.
In particular, the Samsung counterfeit uses the native launcher, UI/Icon pack, and theming engine for its variant of Android; it is almost indistinguishable from the original. It even includes legitimate portals for both Samsung and Google play app stores.
The iPhone, however, quickly falls apart after minutes of exploration. The ROM system layer initially presents a believable iOS UI, but edge cases in event behaviors (WiFi connection errors, application exceptions, certain input text types, etc.) reveal stock Android screens. In addition, the “iOS” apps all displayed in noticeably low resolution and contain creatively broken english (in stark contrast to the ROM system layer, suggesting separate authors).
The Bad – They are full of unpatched vulnerabilities and insecure bloatware
Both phones report running the latest version of Android Pie 9.0; a relatively hardened OS in most regards. However, it’s not true.
In the case of the iPhone, further digging revealed that it runs a far older version of Android: Kitkat 4.4.0. Kitkat’s last update came in 2014. As you can imagine, hundreds of CVEs have appeared since then, not to mention inherent design flaws that have since been reworked: sandbox mechanisms, file system partitions, and dangerous permission APIs to name a few.
We probed a few well-known weaknesses and confirmed they were unpatched. The device is susceptible to the notorious Stagefright bugs which exploit media processing in the SMS/MMS messages to gain remote control of the device. In addition, several vulnerabilities in old Android system daemons, including the Mediaserver and Surfaceflinger, exhibited unpatched functionality. Because these AOSP ROMs are compiled out-of-band and maintained ad-hoc in the depths of board-hacking and system-modding forums, it is unlikely that users could ever patch these for themselves. There is certainly no over-the-air upgrade capability.
The S10 runs a slightly newer Android: Lollipop 5.1. Last updated in 2015, Lollipop replaced the Dalvik VM with the modern ART VM, and added Material UI theming elements thus allowing our counterfeit to use the Samsung UI components.
However, there is an even more serious problem that plagues both phones: outdated kernels. In addition to the Android runtime updates, the Linux kernel in Android phones often requires vendor participation to downstream security fixes onto the phone. Even in legitimate Android devices, this process often lags behind security releases and requires additional engineering effort by the vendor. The volunteer community of Mediatek ROM maintainers aren’t going to keep up with daily security updates, so outdated kernels in counterfeits are inevitable. Both phones had vulnerable kernels that were successfully exploited by known bugs, like DirtyCow (a copy-on-write memory race condition) and Towelroot (Futex timing bug ported to Android). No doubt a wide host of other kernel bugs are available for a potential attacker to abuse.
The Mediatek device drivers and daemons are a source of abundant vulnerabilities as well, often leading to kernel-level execution. Again, the ability or likelihood that a user would be able to appropriately find and patch these systems is highly unlikely.
Another pitfall of these phones is the presence of debug and testing utilities that expose dangerous system-level permissions in the Mediatek baseline ROM packages. This was observed on both of these devices, as well as on multiple other counterfeit variants we’ve researched. The Galaxy S10 counterfeit features a remote debugging server that allows remote control over media files, logging SMS messages, and deleting phone numbers.
These counterfeits are undeniably insecure. Both lie about their Android versions. The ROM versions used were severely outdated and vulnerable to public exploits, as were their kernels. They include bloatware, like remote debugging services, that enable abuse. This is what you’d expect from a phone that’s built around a volunteer-maintained, outdated Android ROM.
The ability for vendors and developers to seamlessly integrate and enforce security updates across their devices has been a massive win for mobile security. This requires a larger ecosystem that extends beyond the phone itself. Not only are these clones lacking in the latest and greatest hardware mitigations, but being isolated from the larger ecosystem and its security safety net is an inherent risk that can never truly be mitigated by these knockoffs.
The Ugly – They contain malware and rootkits
Both the Galaxy S10 and iPhone 6 counterfeits we assessed contained malware and rootkits.
The first issue we noticed in both devices was the presence of Umeng, an invasive analytics library, embedded into many of the applications and system libraries. Based out of China, Umeng has been caught employing malware in their operations. It collects and sends user information, including name, gender, IMEI numbers, serials, and more, back to their servers regularly without prompting any of the usual permission-consent disclaimers.
In the case of the S10, we found the SystemUI framework was modified to embed a server that can arbitrarily download, install, and run .dex files, in addition to reporting event information collected from system events such as geolocation, contact creation, and package installation and removal. For example, the library components used for facial recognition came bundled with functionality that can install arbitrary Android applications on demand.
Finally, the S10 included a RAT masquerading as a font extension system service (“LovelyFonts”) that allows for remote native code execution, complete with a shell, arbitrary file upload/download, and logging of system events. This RAT provides unlimited access to the person who planted it there, enabling total compromise of the phone and all its data. We observed that certain events, such as installing packages or sending text messages, would trigger connections to exchange encrypted payloads remotely related to this backdoor. As a note, while this specific malware wasn’t present on the particular iPhone 6 that we studied, we have encountered variants of it on other counterfeit iPhone ROMs in the past.
Insecure, outdated ROMs are bad. Actual evidence of malicious intent is ugly. The phones we looked at both had Umeng, a known invasive analytics library that steals user data, embedded in multiple applications. The S10 had a server embedded in the SystemUI framework that can download, install, and run applications, and collect system data, and it had malware that grants unlimited access to the device to whoever planted it there.
The moral of the story? If you’re using counterfeit phones, there’s a high likelihood that it will provide bad actors access to your data by design. Embedding malware here is easy. It is trivial for a counterfeit manufacturer to implant and modify the ROM before distribution. Tracking or detecting either action is impossible for most users. While it is theoretically possible to find a ‘clean’ distribution, it is a gamble to make, never mind the inherent risk of using an insecure baseline system.
Conclusion – If you used one of these phones, you’d already be hacked
As the price point for handheld devices continues to climb, there will always be a temptation to seek cheaper alternatives. Counterfeit smartphones will continue to evolve in sophistication, performance, and threat to users. Using them puts your data at risk and may enable abuse of the applications and networks that you access and use.
Often times, it’s not obvious to buyers that they’re purchasing counterfeits. Fake versions like these are often acquired through Craigslist or other 3rd parties. Some are sold as scam upgrades or gifts. In some countries, it can be difficult to determine genuine sellers from counterfeit vendors because all phones are purchased independently from cellular contracts. Buying direct from Apple or Samsung is the best way to ensure nothing malicious comes preinstalled on your phone, and enables you to receive new software updates that patch security issues (well, at least theoretically). If you’re a company that allows employees to access corporate data on their phones, consider verifying devices for genuine software.
We hope that this investigation helped illuminate the dangers of opting into an “off-brand” device. If this was helpful, or sounds similar to a security concern you or your organization confront, reach out! We offer a wide range of services, including iVerify – a personal security app for iOS – for further securing your phone.
We’d like to again thank DeviceAssure for reaching out and providing us with the hardware to conduct this analysis as well as the opportunity to do some digging into this matter. They will be at Blackhat this year and so will some of us, so stop by and say hi. And as always, we love to hear about weird and strange products out there in the wild, so drop a line if there is something you think we should look at!