CoolPad, an up-and-coming Chinese mobile phone maker, is shipping high-end, Android smart phones with so-called “back door” access built into the phone’s software. That, according to research by the firm Palo Alto Networks.
Palo Alto researchers Claud Xiao and Ryan Olson released a report identifying the suspicious remote access software, which they dubbed “CoolReaper” on Wednesday. According to the report, the so-called “backdoor” program was shipped with stock operating systems (or ROMs) used by Coolpad’s “high end” phones in China and Taiwan.
The software, which appears to have been created and managed by Coolpad, runs on top of the Android operating system and allows the company to remotely manage the phone independent of the wishes of its owner: pushing applications to the device without the user’s consent or notification, wiping data and applications, sending over-the-air (or OTA) updates to the phone, transmitting device data and sending arbitrary phone calls and SMS messages.
“We expect device manufacturers to install software on top of Android that provides additional functionality and customization, but CoolReaper does not fall into that category,” the researchers wrote. “CoolReaper…acts as a true backdoor into Coolpad devices.”
Phone calls to Coolpad’s U.S. offices were not answered and the company’s voice mailbox was full. The company did not reply to an e-mail request for comment prior to publication.
While the CoolReaper back door could clearly facilitate malicious tampering with a Coolpad phone, it is still not clear how the software is being used in China. According to Palo Alto, Coolpad users there complain of suspicious activity on their Coolpad Android devices starting in October, 2013. User complaints ranged from the appearance of new applications on their phone and suspicious over-the-air updates. Advertisements were also being pushed to Coolpad users via notification messages, according to the report.
In an effort to explain the behavior, the researchers downloaded 45 stock ROMs for 8 models of the Coolpad Halo (Dazen) series from Coolpad’s official online forum and another 32 third party ROMs based on the Coolpad stock ROMs. Of 77 ROMs tested, 64 contained the CoolReaper backdoor, Palo Alto said. The back door was found in at least 24 different phone models including the Dazen F2, 1S, F1, and various Coolpad 5000, 7000, 8000 and 9000 series phones. Versions of the CoolReaper backdoor software date to October, 2013.
There is only limited impact on mobile phone users in Europe and North America. Coolpad, a smart phone division of the firm Yulong Computer Telecommunication Scientific in Shenzen, China, sells mostly to consumers in China and Taiwan. However, the company is already the world’s sixth largest handset maker. However, like other fast-growing Chinese mobile phone startups, it eyes expansion outside of its home market.
Palo Alto’s report notes that Coolpad is partnering with carriers in the U.S. and Europe to expand into those markets. It has already done deals with MetroPCS Communications (now T-Mobile) in the U.S. and has sold more than 1.3 million units of Quattro 4G in the U.S. It has also partnered with Vodafone and France Télécom to sell the Coolpad 8860U and Coolpad 8870U in more than ten European countries.
The story raises troubling questions about the growing influence of Asian cell phone makers in the U.S. market. Last week, the New York Times profiled integrity of electronics exported to the U.S. for domestic use The New York Times last week profiled Xiaomi, China’s top mobile phone maker, which was founded in 2010. Xiaomi’s founders, the Chinese entrepreneur Lei Jun and Lin Bin, a former Google executive, are hoping their success in China will be a platform to expand outside of that market, the Times reported.