Shenzhen HAWK Internet Co., Ltd is a Chinese company that’s secretly developing 24 popular apps, totaling more than 382 million installs, with some apps containing malware and rogueware, and often participating in unethical practices.
Update (February 4): after our story was published, Zak Doffman at Forbes got in contact with Google, which swiftly removed all 24 apps in the Shenzhen network from the Play store. Google responded that they take reports of security and privacy violations seriously. “If we find behavior that violates our policies, we take action.”
Update (February 5): Shenzhen Hawk’s mega parent company, TCL Corporation, has now responded, claiming that they understand Google’s actions in removing all of the Shenzhen apps and are “actively working with them to better understand their concerns.” They are also planning on hiring an outside security consultant that will audit each of their apps to offer their customers “peace of mind and trust”.
When we analyzed the 23 companies secretly behind 100+ VPN products, we first saw the developer Hi Security pop up, which had 3 VPN products under its name. Then, when we analyzed the amount of dangerous permissions popular free antivirus apps were requesting, Hi Security popped up again.
Our interests piqued, we dug further and discovered something startling:
Chinese company called Shenzhen HAWK is secretly behind not just the app developer Hi Security, but also 4 other app developers, for a total of 24 apps with 382 million combined installs. Some of these apps are known for containing malware and rogueware.
First, there’s the malware-infected Weather Forecast app that harvested millions of users’ data and sent that to a server in China. The app also subscribed users to premium phone numbers, leading to large charges on those users’ phone bills. To make matters worse, the app would launch hidden browser windows and click on ads from certain web pages.
In another case, the Indian government in 2017 also warned its army and paramilitary members to delete Virus Cleaner from their phones because they were identified as being spyware or other malware. In 2018, default apps on Alcatel phones, developed by Shenzhen HAWK, were replaced by adware-riddled apps, frustrating users with loads of advertisements.
All of these affected apps, by the way, are still available to download on Google Play. Our research has uncovered that they’re also asking for a huge amount of dangerous permissions, potentially putting users’ private data at risk. These dangerous permissions include the ability to make calls, take pictures and record video, record audio, and much more.
Because Google has so far failed to remove these apps from the Play store, we recommend users take matters into their own hands and question whether they need these apps at all. If they provide no real benefit, we recommend deleting them from your phone as soon as possible.
Shenzhen HAWK, TCL and China
On their company page, Shenzhen HAWK lists 13 apps as their products:
Included on their page are these apps and the names of their developers listed in Google Play:
- Super Cleaner developed by Hawk App
- Hi Security developed by Hi Security
- Candy developed by ViewYeah Studio
- Super Battery developed by Hawk App
- Gallery developed by Alcatel Innovative Lab
- Hi VPN developed by Hi Security
- Net Master developed by Hi Security
- filemanager developed by mie-alcatel.support
- Apps (not in Google Play)
- Calculator (not in Google Play)
- Joy Recorder developed by mie-alcatel.support
- Weather developed by mie-alcatel.support
- Launcher developed by mie-alcatel.support
However, when we investigated each of the 5 app developers that create these apps, we discovered that there were actually 24 different apps in the Shenzhen HAWK network.
In their about page, Shenzhen HAWK lists itself as a wholly-owned subsidiary of the TCL Corporation, a major Chinese company also based in the Guangdong province.
TCL Corporation has strong ties to the Chinese government, starting off in the early 2000s as a state-owned enterprise, and growing to be a large corporation through government support.
TCL Corporation has at least 52 subsidiaries around the world and owns the licensing rights to Alcatel, BlackBerry, and RCA, among others. It also has strong ties to the Chinese government, starting off in the early 2000s as a state-owned enterprise, and growing to be a large corporation through government support.
This can be quite problematic for privacy-seeking users: China is a defiantly repressive country with very strict data retention laws. It requires companies operating in China to store data on local servers and give unfettered access to those services to the authorities upon request.
China is also well-known for its strong desire for greater surveillance, both within its own borders and around the world.
But it’s not only the location that should be a worry for users.
It’s also the fact that Shenzhen HAWK has been exposed for serious privacy and security risks in the past.
Shenzhen HAWK’s spotty reputation
Some of Shenzhen HAWK’s apps have been in the news for issues related to malware, unethical practices, and inadequate privacy.
Alcatel apps secretly infecting phones with malware and adware
Since 2005, TCL Corporation has held the licensing rights for the Alcatel brand, and TCL’s subsidiary Shenzhen HAWK develops 7 apps made specifically for Alcatel phones.
ZDNet writes that one default Alcatel app, Weather Forecast, was compromised with malware, possibly infecting millions of users’ devices. According to the UK-based mobile security firm Upstream, the weather app harvested user data and sent it to a server in China.
The researchers noted that the app “collects and transmits geographic locations, email addresses, IMEIs to a server in China and has a number of privacy invasive permissions on the device.”
In certain countries, the malicious code inside the app would try to subscribe users to premium phone numbers without their knowledge, leading to large charges on users’ phone bills. In Brazil, for example, 2.5 million transaction attempts were made in July-August 2018 from about 130,000 phone numbers.
The weather app would also run in the background, secretly launching hidden browser windows and clicking on ads from certain web pages, surreptitiously using 50MB-250MB of data per day.
Furthermore, in early 2018, Alcatel phone users noticed that some Alcatel apps had been updated to include advertisements – lots of advertisements. Some default Alcatel apps, like Gallery, were changed to Candy Gallery, with a completely new app developer name listed.
Hi Security app banned by Indian government
In 2017, India’s government gave warning to the army and paramilitary to delete a number of Chinese-origin apps from their phones. These 42 mobile apps were identified by the government’s intelligence agency as being spyware or other types of malware.
Included in that list is one app, Virus Cleaner 2019 – Antivirus, Cleaner & Booster developed by Hi Security, which is owned by Shenzhen HAWK.
Virus Cleaner 2019 has already been downloaded 50 million times, according to Google Play.
What permissions are Shenzhen HAWK apps asking for?
Let’s look at each dangerous permission to understand what the permissions allow the apps to do, as well as what kind of privacy and security risk that presents to the user. The list below is organized from most risky to least risky.
|Dangerous permission||Risk level||Permission description|
|CAMERA: 6/24 apps requested||HIGH||This gives apps permission to access the device’s camera|
|CALL_PHONE: 2/24 apps requested||HIGH||By getting this permission, apps can make a call directly from the app, without the need to use the Dialer or needing confirmation from the user.|
|ACCESS_FINE_LOCATION: 15/24 apps requested||HIGH||This presents a high risk to privacy, since most apps don’t seem to need it at all. This permission allows apps to use GPS, cell data and/or wifi to get a user’s precise location.|
|READ_EXTERNAL_STORAGE: 15/24 apps requested||HIGH||This allows the app to read through your saved files, including system logs, other apps’ files, etc.|
|READ_PHONE_STATE: 14/24 apps requested||HIGH||This permission allows apps to gather information about a user’s phone: the phone number, cellular network information, connected registered phone accounts, and status of ongoing calls.|
|READ_CONTACTS: 2/24 apps requested||HIGH||This allows apps to look through your phone contacts.|
|RECORD_AUDIO: 1/24 apps requested||HIGH||This allows any app to record audio and store that audio either on the device or on the app servers.|
|ACCESS_COARSE_LOCATION: 13/24 apps requested||MEDIUM||This permission allows apps to gather a user’s general location via wifi and/or mobile cell data.|
|GET_ACCOUNTS: 9/24 apps requested||MEDIUM||This permission gives apps the ability to access a list of accounts in the Accounts Service.|
|WRITE_EXTERNAL_STORAGE: 21/24 apps requested||MEDIUM||This allows apps to upload files to users’ device storage.|
|READ_CALENDAR: 2/24 apps requested||MEDIUM||This allows the app the ability to read through your personal calendar.|
|WRITE_CALENDAR: 1/24 apps requested||MEDIUM||This allows apps to add events to your calendar.|
Dangerous permissions by app
Not all Shenzhen HAWK apps are requesting more dangerous permissions than they need. For example, Word Crossy only asks for the ability to upload files to the device. However, Calendar Lite is asking for permission to read through users’ logs, even though it doesn’t require that function.
Table 2. Sample of dangerous permissions requests by 5 Shenzhen HAWK apps under different developer names.
|App Name||No. of dangerous permissions||App Permission name|
|Virus Cleaner 2019 – Antivirus, Cleaner & Booster|
Google Play installs: 100 million
|Candy Selfie Camera – Kawaii Photo, Beauty Plus Cam|
Google Play installs: 10 million
|Super Cleaner – Antivirus, Booster, Phone Cleaner|
Google Play installs: 5 million
Google Play installs: 5 million
|Sound Recorder: Recorder & Voice Changer Free|
Google Play installs: 10 million
From the table above, a lot of logical questions arise:
- Why does an antivirus need to use the camera?
- Why does a camera app need so many permissions, including the ability to read logs, read through their files, etc.?
- Why does a sound recorder need to use a camera?
Reasons for unnecessary dangerous permissions
When looking through these dangerous permissions being requested by these apps, it’s important to understand why they’re requesting them in the first place.
The most probable, and legal, reason why apps want a lot of permissions is to sell that data to third parties. The most lucrative is your location data: coarse and fine location, which can pinpoint your location to within a few yards.
Apps can send your location data 14,000 times per day, meaning they’ll have a very good idea of your everyday movements. They can even see which floor you’re on in a building. With this location data, apps can make a lot of money – one company pays developers $4/month for every 1,000 active monthly users.
If apps have 1,000,000 monthly users, that can equal $4,000 every month for app users’ location data.
Less scrupulous app developers can use these permissions for their own illegal purposes, such as launching ransomware once users grant them special permissions. Others can use data from dangerous permissions to sell on the black market, including your contacts’ information, private messages, pictures, videos and more.
Unfortunately for Shenzhen HAWK, this isn’t theoretical. One of their apps, Weather Forecast, was caught collecting user data and sending it to a server in China.
Apps have been discovered using the call phone permission to make malicious phone calls, plus harvesting and sending data to a remote site.
There are quite a lot of financially lucrative things, legal or illegal, that app developers can do with user data.
Apps under the Shenzhen HAWK umbrella have a few critical issues that should give users pause:
- They have a history of malware, rogueware, or unethical practices
- They ask for a large amount of unnecessary dangerous permissions
Put together, users should seriously consider whether the perceived benefits will outweigh these serious negatives. In general, when selecting apps to use – and especially when giving them access to sensitive parts of your phone – users need to be very vigilant.
Apps that seem innocent may actually be reading and changing your files, selling your data, or much worse. After all, at the end of the day, you are the last line of defense against malicious software.
Check out our other research:
- Free antivirus apps requesting huge amounts of dangerous permissions they don’t need
- How to beat Google Play’s algorithm and get 280 million installs
- Hidden VPN owners unveiled: 101 VPN products run by just 23 companies
- Study: how the world’s top websites track your online behavior
- Who is dominating the rising VPN market in 2019? Here are the numbers
- VPN confidential: how private is your VPN purchase?