The United States Department of Justice (USDOJ) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), helped by law enforcement agencies from Holland and France, have taken control of three website domains for enabling the illegal download of pirated Android apps.
The action was taken after a joint operation and investigation by the USDOJ Criminal Division’s Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section, the FBI Atlanta’s Field Office and seven US Attorney’s offices, and is the first involving the download of mobile device apps.
The three sites, Applanet, Appbucket and Snappzmarket have all had their content replaced with a seizure banner, notifying visitors that copyright infringement is a federal crime.
Unlike the seizure banner on display at megaupload.com, a file sharing website which was seized at the beginning of this year, the notice doesn’t yet display specific details of any indictments, but that is expected to change if and when the case moves through the courts.
Search Warrants Issued
The servers storing the illegal content were all located overseas, but nine search warrants were executed in six different districts throughout the US.
No further details regarding the results of those search warrants or their targets have been released by the authorities.
The largest of the three websites, applanet, had over 15,000 Android apps stored on its servers and essentially functioned as an illegal version of Google Play. Apps and games that would normally be sold for a price were easily available to download for free.
Commenting on the domain seizures, US Attorney Sally Yates of the Northern District of Georgia said:
“Criminal copyright laws apply to apps for cell phones and tablets, just as they do to other software, music and writings. These laws protect and encourage the hard work and ingenuity of software developers entering this growing and important part of our economy.” (1)
The illegal downloading of Android apps has been a problem ever since the devices became available in 2009.
Open Source Encourages Piracy
The very nature of Android’s open architecture makes it easier for hackers to pirate games and applications, enabling them to run on unmodified Android devices. Other platforms, such as Apple’s iOS are much harder to crack.
It is possible, but in order to use a pirated version of an iOS application, iPhone and iPad users must first “jailbreak” their device. Jailbreaking involves removing the operating system limitations imposed by Apple and is not something the majority of users are comfortable undertaking.
Despite the seizure of these three Android apps download sites, a simple “How to Get Android Paid Apps for Free” search on Google for the last month displays over a million results, with many of these hits links to YouTube video tutorials (2).
The closure of megaupload.com earlier this year also did not have an effect on the number of file sharing websites available which offer – in a roundabout way – access to pirated software. Sites such as RapidShare, FileFactory and Lumfile are all heavily used by the pirates in order to store their archives of software.
All that is needed in order to download these files are the URL’s, and these are easily found by visiting any of the multitudes of “Warez” forums available on the internet.
As with illegal PC/Mac downloads, pirated app software will not be going away anytime soon. However, users who download such software will do well to remember one tiny detail. Along with the “free” app they are installing onto their smartphone, the chances of installing a few “hidden extras” are likely to be very high indeed.
Risk of Virus Infection is High
Verified app software has been checked and deemed safe by the store it is being downloaded from, be it Apple’s App Store or Google Play. When you opt to download a pirated app, you are also opting-in to download and install whichever nasty surprises the hacker has deemed fit to include.
Software that can send text messages to premium rate services, call premium rate international telephone numbers, download files or send your text messages and other personal information to the hacker is just a taste of what can happen (3).
More recently, a new phenomenon has emerged known as Ransomware. This type of attack can encrypt or lock the data on your phone and the only way to get it back is by paying a “ransom”. The cybercriminals use anonymous payment methods, but there is no guarantee that once you have paid them you will regain access to your phone.
If any of the above has happened to you or happens to6 you in the future because of an illegal app download, don’t say we didn’t warn you.
The FBI will undoubtedly close more illegal download sites in the future, but until they do, you should use such sites at your own risk. The benefit of saving a few dollars on an app would be obliterated by a single premium rate text message to Russia!