Gaming-Related Malware on the Rise on Mobile, PCs

Mobile devices increasingly targeted by attacks

3 min read
gaming background with yellow skull sign

Popular online games such as Minecraft and The Sims are helping spread malware on both PCs and mobile devices, highlighting the risks that both games and mobile devices now pose, a new study finds.

Gaming is increasingly a way not just for people to entertain themselves, but also to connect with others, which is otherwise difficult to do during the pandemic, notes freemiumvirtual private network service Atlas VPN.

"We've been watching the amount of malware accelerate within games for the past decade or so," says Jacinta Tobin, vice president of global sales and operations at cybersecurity firm Proofpoint's Cloudmark mobile and email security division. "It's a space that's rife to be exploited."

According to data from Atlas VPN, between July 1, 2020 and June 30, 2021, more than 303,000 PCs were afflicted by gaming-related unwanted software, such as malware, adware and spyware. Mobile games also proved a threat, with as many as 50,000 or so users attempting to download unwanted files hiding under the disguise of the 10 most-played mobile games, such as Minecraft, The Sims 4, PUBG and Grand Theft Auto V.

A plethora of user-developed modifications exist for Minecraft that make gameplay more diverse and may help account for its popularity, but these unofficial mods can hide dangerous payloads or undesirable software, Atlas VPN notes.

In addition, games are often linked with online spaces where attackers can lurk, Tobin notes. These include chat windows where attackers can ask for personal info under the guise of a fellow gamer or post links to mods that are actually unwanted files, as well as YouTube channels sharing game-related videos where attackers can post potentially malicious links.

"Attackers seek ways to get people out of the app to an environment that's not as secure," Tobin says.

“Malware on phones is good at educating users how to enable malware—providing guides on how to disable certain settings, how to enable access to untrusted sources.”
—Jacinta Tobin, Proofpoint

As people rely more and more on mobile devices for everyday communications and transactions, they are increasingly becoming a target for attacks, Cloudmark notes. For example, in September the company discovered new malware dubbed TangleBot targeting Android devices in the United States and Canada that spreads through SMS (short message service) texts. It can access and control many aspects of devices, including the camera, microphone, phone and SMS capabilities, GPS, contacts and call logs, and can place overlay screens on the device covering legitimate programs, such banking apps, to steal the victim's account credentials.

"You can imagine attackers using TangleBot or malware like it for logging your keystrokes or harvesting your biometric data—if your bank has a voice authentication mechanism for verifying your credentials, it can record that, or it can use that information to create deepfakes to emulate your voice," Tobin says. "Or you can imagine TangleBot getting into a CEO's phone, and attackers sending a text is if they were the CEO. 'Dear CFO, I'm driving and can't log in to the system, can you wire money to this account urgently?' We're expecting attacks like this down the road."

When it comes to desktops and laptops, users now often know not to click on suspicious links and download potential malware, "but malware on phones is relatively new, and we're all used to downloading apps to get cool new features," Tobin says. In addition, "malware on phones is good at educating users how to enable malware, providing guides on how to disable certain settings, how to enable access to untrusted sources."

The fact that Google's Android operating system is more open than Apple's iOS means that developers can make software more easily available for "sideloading" through third parties outside the official Google Play app store. "So while the Google and Apple teams are excellent at making sure their official app stores are as safe as possible, it's harder for Google to make sure all Android applications are safe," Tobin says.

Indeed, Apple recently claimed Android devices have between 15 and 47 times more malware infections than iPhone because of sideloading. However, iOS is not immune to attacks, as the spyware known as Pegasus recently showed, Tobin notes.

"It can be lucrative to launch attacks on phones just to get mobile numbers," Tobin says. "If you think about it, mobile phone numbers are now connected to almost every business transaction. We're used to having multiple email addresses, but the mobile number is often the key hub to all your information."

There are now multiple anti-malware products with free or paid versions for iOS and Android, Tobin notes. “Sometimes when a new update comes out for your mobile device, you may be reluctant to download it unless it offers new functionality. But most updates are security updates.” And security updates, she adds, are as a rule well worth downloading and installing.

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The Inner Beauty of Basic Electronics

Open Circuits showcases the surprising complexity of passive components

5 min read
A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.
All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

Eric Schlaepfer was trying to fix a broken piece of test equipment when he came across the cause of the problem—a troubled tantalum capacitor. The component had somehow shorted out, and he wanted to know why. So he polished it down for a look inside. He never found the source of the short, but he and his collaborator, Windell H. Oskay, discovered something even better: a breathtaking hidden world inside electronics. What followed were hours and hours of polishing, cleaning, and photography that resulted in Open Circuits: The Inner Beauty of Electronic Components (No Starch Press, 2022), an excerpt of which follows. As the authors write, everything about these components is deliberately designed to meet specific technical needs, but that design leads to “accidental beauty: the emergent aesthetics of things you were never expected to see.”

From a book that spans the wide world of electronics, what we at IEEE Spectrum found surprisingly compelling were the insides of things we don’t spend much time thinking about, passive components. Transistors, LEDs, and other semiconductors may be where the action is, but the simple physics of resistors, capacitors, and inductors have their own sort of splendor.

High-Stability Film Resistor

A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.

All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

This high-stability film resistor, about 4 millimeters in diameter, is made in much the same way as its inexpensive carbon-film cousin, but with exacting precision. A ceramic rod is coated with a fine layer of resistive film (thin metal, metal oxide, or carbon) and then a perfectly uniform helical groove is machined into the film.

Instead of coating the resistor with an epoxy, it’s hermetically sealed in a lustrous little glass envelope. This makes the resistor more robust, ideal for specialized cases such as precision reference instrumentation, where long-term stability of the resistor is critical. The glass envelope provides better isolation against moisture and other environmental changes than standard coatings like epoxy.

15-Turn Trimmer Potentiometer

A photo of a blue chip
A photo of a blue chip on a circuit board.

It takes 15 rotations of an adjustment screw to move a 15-turn trimmer potentiometer from one end of its resistive range to the other. Circuits that need to be adjusted with fine resolution control use this type of trimmer pot instead of the single-turn variety.

The resistive element in this trimmer is a strip of cermet—a composite of ceramic and metal—silk-screened on a white ceramic substrate. Screen-printed metal links each end of the strip to the connecting wires. It’s a flattened, linear version of the horseshoe-shaped resistive element in single-turn trimmers.

Turning the adjustment screw moves a plastic slider along a track. The wiper is a spring finger, a spring-loaded metal contact, attached to the slider. It makes contact between a metal strip and the selected point on the strip of resistive film.

Ceramic Disc Capacitor

A cutaway of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor
A photo of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor

Capacitors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of static electricity. They’re used in countless ways, including for bulk energy storage, to smooth out electronic signals, and as computer memory cells. The simplest capacitor consists of two parallel metal plates with a gap between them, but capacitors can take many forms so long as there are two conductive surfaces, called electrodes, separated by an insulator.

A ceramic disc capacitor is a low-cost capacitor that is frequently found in appliances and toys. Its insulator is a ceramic disc, and its two parallel plates are extremely thin metal coatings that are evaporated or sputtered onto the disc’s outer surfaces. Connecting wires are attached using solder, and the whole assembly is dipped into a porous coating material that dries hard and protects the capacitor from damage.

Film Capacitor

An image of a cut away of a capacitor
A photo of a green capacitor.

Film capacitors are frequently found in high-quality audio equipment, such as headphone amplifiers, record players, graphic equalizers, and radio tuners. Their key feature is that the dielectric material is a plastic film, such as polyester or polypropylene.

The metal electrodes of this film capacitor are vacuum-deposited on the surfaces of long strips of plastic film. After the leads are attached, the films are rolled up and dipped into an epoxy that binds the assembly together. Then the completed assembly is dipped in a tough outer coating and marked with its value.

Other types of film capacitors are made by stacking flat layers of metallized plastic film, rather than rolling up layers of film.

Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

A photo of a cutaway of a Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

At the core of this capacitor is a porous pellet of tantalum metal. The pellet is made from tantalum powder and sintered, or compressed at a high temperature, into a dense, spongelike solid.

Just like a kitchen sponge, the resulting pellet has a high surface area per unit volume. The pellet is then anodized, creating an insulating oxide layer with an equally high surface area. This process packs a lot of capacitance into a compact device, using spongelike geometry rather than the stacked or rolled layers that most other capacitors use.

The device’s positive terminal, or anode, is connected directly to the tantalum metal. The negative terminal, or cathode, is formed by a thin layer of conductive manganese dioxide coating the pellet.

Axial Inductor

An image of a cutaway of a Axial Inductor
A photo of a collection of cut wires

Inductors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of a magnetic field. They’re used, for example, in some types of power supplies to convert between voltages by alternately storing and releasing energy. This energy-efficient design helps maximize the battery life of cellphones and other portable electronics.

Inductors typically consist of a coil of insulated wire wrapped around a core of magnetic material like iron or ferrite, a ceramic filled with iron oxide. Current flowing around the core produces a magnetic field that acts as a sort of flywheel for current, smoothing out changes in the current as it flows through the inductor.

This axial inductor has a number of turns of varnished copper wire wrapped around a ferrite form and soldered to copper leads on its two ends. It has several layers of protection: a clear varnish over the windings, a light-green coating around the solder joints, and a striking green outer coating to protect the whole component and provide a surface for the colorful stripes that indicate its inductance value.

Power Supply Transformer

A photo of a collection of cut wires
A photo of a yellow element on a circuit board.

This transformer has multiple sets of windings and is used in a power supply to create multiple output AC voltages from a single AC input such as a wall outlet.

The small wires nearer the center are “high impedance” turns of magnet wire. These windings carry a higher voltage but a lower current. They’re protected by several layers of tape, a copper-foil electrostatic shield, and more tape.

The outer “low impedance” windings are made with thicker insulated wire and fewer turns. They handle a lower voltage but a higher current.

All of the windings are wrapped around a black plastic bobbin. Two pieces of ferrite ceramic are bonded together to form the magnetic core at the heart of the transformer.

This article appears in the February 2023 print issue.