Mystery around Trend Micro apps still lingers one month later

It’s been a little over a month since several Trend Micro apps were kicked out of the Mac App Store by Apple over allegations of stealing user data, but several crucial questions remain unanswered.

To recap, security researchers discovered that seven Trend Micro apps were collecting users’ browser data without notifying users (the vendor claims the data collection was included in its EULAs, but it later conceded the apps had no secondary, informed consent process). Following the removal of those apps, Trend Micro’s story of what took place changed several times – the first statement indicated everything was fine and that the apps were working as designed, while subsequent updates blamed the fiasco on common code libraries that were mistakenly used in certain apps and conceded that the user notification and permission processes needed an overhaul.

Trend Micro last week issued its latest statement on the situation, which included an answer to a vital question about what had happened with these Mac apps: “The data was never shared with any third party, monetized for ad revenue, or otherwise used for any purpose other than the security of customers.”

While that was an important disclosure, there were still questions Trend Micro had yet to answer. I sent some of those questions to Trend Micro; a company spokesperson replied with a statement addressing some of the points but sidestepping others.

  • What happened with “Open Any File: RAR Support”? Initially, researchers identified several apps that were collecting browser histories, and Trend Micro disclosed that five of those apps — Dr. Antivirus, Dr. Battery, Dr. Cleaner, Dr. Cleaner Pro, Dr. Unarchiver and Duplicate Finder – were the company’s property. But two days later, Trend Micro named a sixth app, Open Any Files. Why did it take two days for the company to disclose this? How did Trend Micro not know the Open Any Files app belonged to them? Trend Micro didn’t directly address these questions.
  • Why wasn’t Open Any Files listed as a Trend Micro app? This is one of the stranger parts of the Trend Micro apps controversy. According to a cached Mac App Store page for Open Any Files, there’s no mention of Trend Micro at all. Instead, the app is attributed to a developer named “Hao Wu,” and the description lists Wu as the copyright holder as well. Here is Trend Micro’s answer: “Open Any Files was created by a former Trend Micro developer as a short term pilot project to provide consumers with a number of helpful utilities,” the spokesperson wrote. “As there were no long term plans in place for the support of this application at the time of registration and copyright, full corporate branding was not applied. As you will know, we have decided to stop development and distribution of this particular app.” The spokesperson also said Open Any Files, was released in late 2017 with the browser data collection module enabled, but “starting with the version released in April 2018 (which was publicly available when this issue was reported in September) that functionality had already been removed.”
  • What was Open Any Files’ purpose? The only indications that Open Any Files belonged to Trend Micro are, according to MalwareBytes’ Thomas Reed, that the app was uploading users’ browser data to a Trend Micro domain, and it promoted another Trend Micro app in Dr. Antivirus. “Promoted” might be too soft a word; according to Reed’s assessment, Open Any Files was similar to other “scam applications” that warn users who attempt to open a file with the app that the file in question can’t be opened because it is infected and that users should scan the file with the promoted antivirus app. I asked Trend Micro if the company disputed Reed’s characterization of the app; the spokesperson did not address this question.
  • Who is Hao Wu? It appears from Trend Micro’s statement that Wu is a former developer at the company, but the company isn’t saying anything beyond that. Information from Apple’s Mac and iOS app stores is limited as well. It appears the developer behind Open Any Files is the same Hao Wu that is listed as the owner developer of other apps such as Weird Calc, iWiFiTest, Mr. Cleaner and Thinnest Calculator, but the developer’s app store profile appears to have been removed.
  • Is Trend Micro sure how much data its apps collected? On multiple occasions, the vendor explicitly stated data collection included only a small snapshot of users’ browser data – 24 hours prior to the installation of the apps. But Reed’s analysis of several of Trend Micro’s apps, including Open Any File and Dr. Antivirus, found they were collecting complete browsing and search histories from users. “It could be argued that it is useful for antivirus software to collect certain limited browsing history leading up to a malware/webpage detection and blocking,” Reed wrote in his analysis. “But it is very hard to argue to exfiltrate the entire browsing history of all installed browsers regardless of whether the user has encountered malware or not.” In addition, Reed discovered Dr. Antivirus was also uploading a list with “detailed information about every application found on the system,” which the company had yet to explain in its official statements and FAQ on the matter. Trend Micro responded to these questions. “We must reiterate our earlier statement that the apps in question performed a one-time upload of a snapshot of browser history covering the 24 hours prior to installation for security purposes,” the spokesperson wrote. “In addition, Dr. Antivirus included an app reputation feature that checked for malicious apps and fed anonymized app information into our large app reputation data base to protect users from potentially dangerous apps.”

It’s still unclear why Trend Micro would allow one of its developers to push out an app like Open Any Files if the company – by its own admission – never had any long term support plans for it. It’s also unclear why Trend Micro would remove the data collection feature for this specific app (and not others) but never properly brand Open Any Files.

To its credit, Trend Micro hasn’t ignored the situation or tried to erase its earlier denials of wrongdoing. But given the situation, the company owes more transparency about this episode and what oversight and controls it has around its app development process. The application ecosystem is full of threats, with countless apps performing a bevy of unscrupulous activity or downright malicious attacks against users. We’ve come to expect that kind of activity from get-rich-quick scam artists, cybercriminals and APTs. We don’t, however, expect it to come from one of the world’s largest and most successful security vendors.

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