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An Overview Of the Practice Of Sideloading In Cybersecurity

By Tom Seest

What Is Sideloading In Cybersecurity?

Sideloading is the practice of downloading and installing applications on a mobile device that aren’t available through an official store, such as Google Play or the Apple App Store. Unfortunately, sideloading may present serious security risks and void your phone’s warranty or expose it to data-stealing malware.
Sideloading poses a threat because it provides malicious actors with an additional avenue of infiltration into networks. In particular, hackers could leverage Microsoft’s June 2021 feature, which enabled Windows 10 users to install apps directly from web pages.

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Is Sideloading a Problem In Third-Party App Stores In Cybersecurity?

Sideloading, also known as downloading and installing apps outside the official app stores like Google Play or Apple’s App Store, poses a major security risk to mobile device users. It allows hackers to distribute malware and steal sensitive information from device users without their knowledge.
Furthermore, using apps can present other issues to smartphone users, such as privacy violations. It could be especially hazardous if an app is used maliciously for the theft of credit card data or sending spam messages. Furthermore, apps may contain viruses or other types of malware which could infect phones or laptops.
Thankfully, app stores have several safeguards in place to make it difficult for malware to gain access. These include approval processes and reviews after apps are released. Furthermore, periodic scans of content in the store help identify any harmful items and remove them promptly.
However, sideloading can still pose a threat to users if their third-party app stores do not have strong security protocols in place. For instance, they could download an app that employs social engineering tactics in order to convince them to install it or accidentally enable a feature that allows the app to load code directly from memory without any other software present.
To mitigate these threats, the UK government has launched a review of how app stores operate on Android and iOS devices. This investigation examines what security requirements, feedback, guidance, and training operators provide to their users, how these can be enhanced, as well as any potential impacts for app users.
This review is part of a larger cyber security initiative that involves working with international counterparts to guarantee that changes in the ecosystem do not create new security risks or undermine existing safeguards (see 6.19). The review examines how app store operators are adhering to UK GDPR security and privacy standards as well as other data protection law and how they can communicate with users about vulnerabilities in apps.

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Is Sideloading Malware a Problem In Cybersecurity?

Sideloading attacks are a popular tactic used by cybercriminals to spread malware to their targets. Apple, with its open e-commerce model that permits third-party app stores, has been described as “a cyber criminal’s dream come true.
These malicious apps can run in the background without user interaction and may steal sensitive information, such as account credentials and personal data. Attackers may use this technique to spread a variety of malware, from adware to spyware.
This technique also permits malicious libraries to circumvent protections that prevent execution of untrusted libraries, such as WinSxS manifest files that lack specificity about which DLLs should be loaded or fail to validate file paths. This can lead to various vulnerabilities, including privilege escalation and defense evasion.
Defenders should utilize detection and response tools that can detect DLL side-loading exploits. Examples include Bitdefender GravityZone agents, which alert when a malicious DLL is loaded and when it is saved to disk (on-access detection).
In addition to these tools, defenders should regularly update their software in order to patch vulnerabilities like DLL side-loading. Doing this helps reduce the chances for digital adversaries to access their systems.
Another strategy for stopping sideloading malware is restricting user rights through Group Policy. This makes it harder for non-system administrators to download and install PUPs.
Maintaining an approved software list for employees can help distinguish legitimate programs from unauthorized ones. Furthermore, educate your personnel about the dangers of sideloaded applications and company policies regarding their usage.
Recent research from Mimecast’s Threat Center has uncovered a sideloading campaign targeting the App Installer feature of the Microsoft Store, which allows users to install Windows 10 apps from a webpage. This was carried out by an actor known for spreading Trickbot and BazarLoader malware which often leads to ransomware attacks.

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Is Sideloading a Privacy Issue In Cybersecurity?

Sideloading is a commonly used technique that enables users to download applications onto their smartphones without going through the official app store. Unfortunately, this practice could put users at risk of security breaches.
Sideloading is a major malware infection vector, offering hackers the chance to steal credentials from victims and even manipulate their social media accounts. Furthermore, it has the potential to infect systems designed with defenses designed to stop malware installations.
Gracey McMinn, CISO at Acronis UK, warns that sideloading poses risks not only to users but also businesses that rely on third-party applications for their operations. Such businesses are particularly vulnerable to malware infections and other attacks, which could damage critical services, databases, digital processes, and a company’s capacity for effective operations.
According to Bitdefender’s senior cyber security researcher Zugec, companies should combine technical controls with awareness training in order to combat sideloading threats. While technical controls may be able to prevent applications from installing without authorization, businesses often struggle with implementing them effectively.
On the contrary, Bitdefender’s research has identified side loaders using various techniques to circumvent system defenses, such as passive exploitation with standalone binary files (highly trusted). A recent exploit, S1deload Stealer, exploits concealment techniques in social media and outdated vulnerabilities in third-party software to enable credential stealing, identity theft, artificial content boosting, and crypto mining operations.

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Are Sideloading Infections a Problem In Cybersecurity?

Sideloading apps is an effective way to circumvent app store security measures, but it also has the potential for serious infections. Beyond common threats like phishing and social engineering, hackers may use applications to launch full-scale attacks against your organization’s IT infrastructure. Not only that, but these attacks also cause data loss as well as system crashes, application downtime, and other IT headaches.
Organizations must consider a combination of technical controls and user awareness when avoiding this risk. They should implement policies and procedures to restrict user access to apps, encrypt or remove those not essential for business operations, and educate employees on potential hazards caused by insecure applications and how best to protect themselves from them. One of the best security apps on the market, for instance, will alert you quickly of potentially hazardous applications.

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