A malware infection can do more than leak your contacts and drain your bank account. It might result in you getting shot.

A specialized app for sighting field artillery has reportedly been hacked and repackaged with malware. Instead of just helping Ukrainian soldiers set up their artillery units more quickly, the hacker-enhanced app also sent precise geo-indicators on these soldiers to servers based in Russia.

The discovery was published by Crowdstrike, the cybersecurity firm best known for linking Russian hackers to the successful phishing of the US Democratic Party. While the firm did not show a soldier’s smartphone with the suspect app, they pointed to the circumstantial evidence that 80% of the artillery pieces which could have been sited with the infected app had been destroyed during the Ukraine-Russia conflict, compared to just 50% of the total artillery resources.

Three additional points about this app:

  1. The app was not available in the official Google Play market. I wonder if the malware addition would have been spotted there as Google Play is usually, but not always, much better than the off-markets at screening and spotting malware additions.
  2. Permissions were granted. Apps ask the user to grant permission for various functionalities and sometimes they ask for way too much and for abilities that way exceed the app’s needs. That, for example, is why Avira identified the SilverPush advertising app as malware. In this case, the permissions might have  been in line with the app functionality — as sighting an artillery piece would require precise location of the gun.
  3. Don’t take your phone into combat. Yes, your phone knows — and says — a lot about you. Even if it’s not full of malware.

The Crowdstrike report is likely to intensify debate over the interaction between Russian hackers and the Russian government. But before this debate devolves into the expected round of finger pointing or denials, it is important to point out the key discovery: Malware can be a matter of life and death.

Over the past decade, we have become inured to the risks from malware. Maybe this is because there are daily warnings about nebulous threats that only rarely seem to strike real people. With smartphones, where the device travels with us everywhere we go, the risks and the threats are often more geographic than those striking the traditional PC. While most people do not think much about the permissions that they grant to their smartphone’s apps, these permissions matter. They can impact your privacy, your pocketbook, and maybe your life.

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