Recently, the McAfee Mobile Research Team uncovered several new variants of the Android malware family BRATA being distributed in Google Play, ironically posing as app security scanners.
These malicious apps urge users to update Chrome, WhatsApp, or a PDF reader, yet instead of updating the app in question, they take full control of the device by abusing accessibility services. Recent versions of BRATA were also seen serving phishing webpages targeting users of financial entities, not only in Brazil but also in Spain and the USA.
In this blog post we will provide an overview of this threat, how does this malware operates and its main upgrades compared with earlier versions. If you want to learn more about the technical details of this threat and the differences between all variants you can check the BRATA whitepaper here.
The origins of BRATA
First seen in the wild at the end of 2018 and named “Brazilian Remote Access Tool Android ” (BRATA) by Kaspersky, this “RAT” initially targeted users in Brazil and then rapidly evolved into a banking trojan. It combines full device control capabilities with the ability to display phishing webpages that steal banking credentials in addition to abilities that allow it capture screen lock credentials (PIN, Password or Pattern), capture keystrokes (keylogger functionality), and record the screen of the infected device to monitor a user’s actions without their consent.
Because BRATA is distributed mainly on Google Play, it allows bad actors to lure victims into installing these malicious apps pretending that there is a security issue on the victim’s device and asking to install a malicious app to fix the problem. Given this common ruse, it is recommended to avoid clicking on links from untrusted sources that pretend to be a security software which scans and updates your system—e even if that link leads to an app in Google Play. McAfee offers protection against this threat via McAfee Mobile Security, which detects this malware as Android/Brata.
How BRATA Android malware has evolved and targets new victims
The main upgrades and changes that we have identified in the latest versions of BRATA recently found in Google Play include:
- Geographical expansion: Initially targeting Brazil, we found that recent variants started to also target users in Spain and the USA.
- Banking trojan functionality: In addition to being able to have full control of the infected device by abusing accessibility services, BRATA is now serving phishing URLs based on the presence of certain financial and banking apps defined by the remote command and control server.
- Self-defense techniques: New BRATA variants added new protection layers like string obfuscation, encryption of configuration files, use of commercial packers, and the move of its core functionality to a remote server so it can be easily updated without changing the main application. Some BRATA variants also check first if the device is worth being attacked before downloading and executing their main payload, making it more evasive to automated analysis systems.
BRATA in Google Play
During 2020, the threat actors behind BRATA have managed to publish several apps in Google Play, most of them reaching between one thousand to five thousand installs. However, also a few variants have reached 10,000 installs including the latest one, DefenseScreen, reported to Google by McAfee in October and later removed from Google Play.
Figure 1. DefenseScreen app in Google Play.
From all BRATA apps that were in Google Play in 2020, five of them caught our attention as they have notable improvements compared with previous ones. We refer to them by the name of the developer accounts:
Figure 2. Timeline of identified apps in Google Play from May to October 2020
Social engineering tricks
BRATA poses as a security app scanner that pretends to scan all the installed apps, while in the background it checks if any of the target apps provided by a remote server are installed in the user’s device. If that is the case, it will urge the user to install a fake update of a specific app selected depending on the device language. In the case of English-language apps, BRATA suggests the update of Chrome while also constantly showing a notification at the top of the screen asking the user to activate accessibility services:
Figure 3. Fake app scanning functionality
Once the user clicks on “UPDATE NOW!”, BRATA proceeds to open the main Accessibility tab in Android settings and asks the user to manually find the malicious service and grant permissions to use accessibility services. When the user attempts to do this dangerous action, Android warns of the potential risks of granting access to accessibility services to a specific app, including that the app can observe your actions, retrieve content from Windows, and perform gestures like tap, swipe, and pinch.
As soon as the user clicks on OK the persistent notification goes away, the main icon of the app is hidden and a full black screen with the word “Updating” appears, which could be used to hide automated actions that now can be performed with the abuse of accessibility services:
Figure 4. BRATA asking access to accessibility services and showing a black screen to potentially hide automated actions
At this point, the app is completely hidden from the user, running in the background in constant communication with a command and control server run by the threat actors. The only user interface that we saw when we analyzed BRATA after the access to accessibility services was granted was the following screen, created by the malware to steal the device PIN and use it to unlock it when the phone is unattended. The screen asks the user to confirm the PIN, validating it with the real one because when an incorrect PIN is entered, an error message is shown and the screen will not disappear until the correct PIN is entered:
Figure 5. BRATA attempting to steal device PIN and confirming if the correct one is provided
Once the malicious app is executed and accessibility permissions have been granted, BRATA can perform almost any action in the compromised device. Here’s the list of commands that we found in all the payloads that we have analyzed so far:
- Steal lock screen (PIN/Password/Pattern)
- Screen Capture: Records the device’s screen and sends screenshots to the remote server
- Execute Action: Interact with user’s interface by abusing accessibility services
- Unlock Device: Use stolen PIN/Password/Pattern to unlock the device
- Start/Schedule activity lunch: Opens a specific activity provided by the remote server
- Start/Stop Keylogger: Captures user’s input on editable fields and leaks that to a remote server
- UI text injection: Injects a string provided by the remote server in an editable field
- Hide/Unhide Incoming Calls: Sets the ring volume to 0 and creates a full black screen to hide an incoming call
- Clipboard manipulation: Injects a string provided by the remote server in the clipboard
In addition to the commands above, BRATA also performs automated actions by abusing accessibility services to hide itself from the user or automatically grant privileges to itself:
- Hides the media projection warning message that explicitly warns the user that the app will start capturing everything displayed on the screen.
- Grants itself any permissions by clicking on the “Allow” button when the permission dialog appears in the screen.
- Disables Google Play Store and therefore Google Play Protect.
- Uninstalls itself in case that the Settings interface of itself with the buttons “Uninstall” and “Force Stop” appears in the screen.
Geographical expansion and Banking Trojan Functionality
Earlier BRATA versions like OutProtect and PrivacyTitan were designed to target Brazilian users only by limiting its execution to devices set to the Portuguese language in Brazil. However, in June we noticed that threat actors behind BRATA started to add support to other languages like Spanish and English. Depending on the language configured in the device, the malware suggested that one of the following three apps needed an urgent update: WhatsApp (Spanish), a non-existent PDF Reader (Portuguese) and Chrome (English):
Figure 6. Apps falsely asked to be updated depending on the device language
In addition to the localization of the user-interface strings, we also noticed that threat actors have updated the list of targeted financial apps to add some from Spain and USA. In September, the target list had around 52 apps but only 32 had phishing URLs. Also, from the 20 US banking apps present in the last target list only 5 had phishing URLs. Here’s an example of phishing websites that will be displayed to the user if specific US banking apps are present in the compromised device:
Figure 7. Examples of phishing websites pretending to be from US banks
Multiple Obfuscation Layers and Stages
Throughout 2020, BRATA constantly evolved, adding different obfuscation layers to impede its analysis and detection. One of the first major changes was moving its core functionality to a remote server so it can be easily updated without changing the original malicious application. The same server is used as a first point of contact to register the infected device, provide an updated list of targeted financial apps, and then deliver the IP address and port of the server that will be used by the attackers to execute commands remotely on the compromised device:
Figure 8. BRATA high level network communication
Additional protection layers include string obfuscation, country and language check, encryption of certain key strings in assets folder, and, in latest variants, the use of a commercial packer that further prevents the static and dynamic analysis of the malicious apps. The illustration below provides a summary of the different protection layers and execution stages present in the latest BRATA variants:
Figure 9. BRATA protection layers and execution stages
Prevention and defense
In order get infected with BRATA ,users must install the malicious application from Google Play so below are some recommendations to avoid being tricked by this or any other Android threats that use social engineering to convince users to install malware that looks legitimate:
- Don’t trust an Android application just because it’s available in the official store. In this case, victims are mainly lured to install an app that promises a more secure device by offering a fake update. Keep in mind that in Android updates are installed automatically via Google Play so users shouldn’t require the installation of a third-party app to have the device up to date.
- McAfee Mobile Security will alert users if they are attempting to install or execute a malware even if it’s downloaded from Google Play. We recommend users to have a reliable and updated antivirus installed on their mobile devices to detect this and other malicious applications.
- Do not click on suspicious links received from text messages or social media, particularly from unknown sources. Always double check by other means if a contact that sends a link without context was really sent by that person, because it could lead to the download of a malicious application.
- Before installing an app, check the developer information, requested permissions, the number of installations, and the content of the reviews. Sometimes applications could have very good rating but most of the reviews could be fake, such as we uncovered in Android/LeifAccess. Be aware that ranking manipulation happens and that reviews are not always trustworthy.
The activation of accessibility services is very sensitive in Android and key to the successful execution of this banking trojan because, once the access to those services is granted, BRATA can perform all the malicious activities and take control of the device. For this reason, Android users must be very careful when granting this access to any app.
Accessibility services are so powerful that in hands of a malicious app they could be used to fully compromise your device data, your online banking and finances, and your digital life overall.
BRATA Android malware continues to evolve—another good reason for protecting mobile devices
When BRATA was initially discovered in 2019 and named “Brazilian Android RAT” by Kaspersky, it was said that, theoretically, the malware can be used to target other users if the cybercriminals behind this threat wanted to do it. Based on the newest variants found in 2020, the theory has become reality, showing that this threat is currently very active, constantly adding new targets, new languages and new protection layers to make its detection and analysis more difficult.
In terms of functionality, BRATA is just another example of how powerful the (ab)use of accessibility services is and how, with just a little bit of social engineering and persistence, cybercriminals can trick users into granting this access to a malicious app and basically getting total control of the infected device. By stealing the PIN, Password or Pattern, combined with the ability to record the screen, click on any button and intercept anything that is entered in an editable field, malware authors can virtually get any data they want, including banking credentials via phishing web pages or even directly from the apps themselves, while also hiding all these actions from the user.
Judging by our findings, the number of apps found in Google Play in 2020 and the increasing number of targeted financial apps, it looks like BRATA will continue to evolve, adding new functionality, new targets, and new obfuscation techniques to target as many users as possible, while also attempting to reduce the risk of being detected and removed from the Play store.
McAfee Mobile Security detects this threat as Android/Brata. To protect yourselves from this and similar threats, employ security software on your mobile devices and think twice before granting access to accessibility services to suspicious apps, even if they are downloaded from trusted sources like Google Play.
Techniques, Tactics and Procedures (TTPS)
Figure 10. MITRE ATT&CK Mobile for BRATA
Indicators of compromise
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