Florida Poly researcher targets next-generation cyber criminals

Karim Elish, assistant professor of computer science at Florida Polytechnic University, is lead author of a paper recently published in the journal IEEE Transactions on Mobile Computing about malware collusion in Android devices. He is working to identify ways to determine which seemingly innocuous apps become malicious when paired with others on a device.
Karim Elish, assistant professor of computer science at Florida Polytechnic University, is lead author of a paper recently published in the journal IEEE Transactions on Mobile Computing about malware collusion in Android devices. He is working to identify ways to determine which seemingly innocuous apps become malicious when paired with others on a device.

The malicious Android apps of the future will truly be wolves in sheep’s clothing, according to Florida Polytechnic University researcher Karim Elish. He said the inevitable practice of malware collusion will see an app operating as advertised and harming nothing until a companion app is installed. The two will then work in tandem to hijack an Android device, steal data, or incur charges to the user.

Elish, an assistant professor of Computer Science, is working on a solution to stay a step ahead of cyber criminals and this emerging malware collusion.

“Most of the cybersecurity community is talking about this problem, which means it’s going to happen sooner or later,” he said. “We are trying to propose a defensive technique before it happens.”

The research titled “Identifying Mobile Inter-App Communication Risks” was recently published in the prestigious journal IEEE Transactions on Mobile Computing.

“The technique we developed is based on static analysis,” he said. “We analyze the source code or the byte code of the apps and try to extract some kind of features that distinguish the malware collusion from the regular benign apps.”

When done successfully, users should be able to identify whether the fun new game they’re downloading is actually part of a malicious pair of apps working together to harm the user.

The experimental evaluation outlined in the published paper was based on real apps in the Google Play online marketplace, but was tested on a proof of concept.

With 2.7 million apps in the Google Play store, which provides access to Android devices, Elish is certain cybersecurity researchers must work harder than ever to stay ahead of those preying upon Android users.

“I enjoy doing this because when I build a solution or a system to protect the system, I feel like I have accomplished something useful for the community and for the user.”

Co-authors of the research paper are Haipeng Cal, a faculty member at Washington State University; Daniel Barton, a software engineer at Lockheed Martin; Danfeng Yao, a faculty member at Virginia Tech; and Barbara Ryder, emerita faculty member at Virginia Tech.

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