Malware could make a smartphone useless even when it still works perfectly well. It sounds like a riddle but there’s a simple explanation: malware can eat into and even wipe out data allowances, leaving users in some markets unable to afford to get online.

To give just one example, Secure-D discovered a rogue ‘weather forecasting’ app was using up to 250MB of data a day on activity that had nothing to do with the app’s stated purpose.


How Malware Eats Up Data

When we think about the damage done by malware, we often think of it leaving devices unusable by wrecking the software and the operating systems. Alternatively, we might think of the damage from data loss with accounts hijacked and identity fraud fueling financial loss. But, perhaps because many of us still have the mindset of malware being a desktop computer issue, we overlook that malware uses an internet connection… at the victim’s expense.

It’s also easy to overlook because this isn’t the type of activity we associate with high data use such as streaming video or downloading huge files. Instead it’s the sheer relentlessness of malware’s data transfers that adds up. This can be as simple as malware sending data to a server and receiving instructions back, or constantly mining a phone for data to send off for remote processing.

The worst-case scenario, however, is mobile ad fraud. Fraudsters create webpages solely to fill them with ads. They then use malware to hijack phones so that they repeatedly visit the pages, view the ads and even ‘click’ on them – all without the phone user knowing. The page operator can then fraudulently claim revenue from the advertisers.

The problem is that it doesn’t matter whether a user intentionally visits and views a web page or a rogue app carries out the activity in secret: the phone consumes internet data either way.

malicious app's behavior

Putting The Price In Perspective

It’s easy to imagine how frustrating and expensive unwanted and unexpected data use can be for any user with a capped monthly data allowance. It’s bad news for people on contracts, but far worse for those on pre-paid plans.

For a customer with a monthly contract in a developed market, the excess data use could mean a throttled connection for the rest of the month after hitting the limit unexpectedly early.

Things are far worse in emerging markets however. Here, several factors mean unwanted data use has a devastating financial impact:

For most users, the handset itself will be relatively affordable, with data plans making up most of the overall cost of owning and running a smartphone.

— Wi-Fi connections at home and on the move will often be sparse or non-existent, making mobile data the main way to get online.

— Data plans have a lower price than in countries such as the US but are far more expensive in real terms when you take into account earnings.

— The vast majority of users are on pay-as-you-go plans rather than monthly subscriptions. Cash flow realities mean many can only buy the cheapest data bundle each time, which inevitably offers the worst value for money. In both the Philippines and Nigeria, the majority of mobile users have to top up their data allowance daily.

To put things into context, a report based on International Labor Organization figures noted that somebody on minimum wage in India would have to work for an hour to pay for enough data to download eight songs.


Meanwhile their minimum wage counterpart in Brazil would need to work 13 hours to pay for 500MB of data.


Mobile Operators Pay The Price

Put mobile malware and expensive data costs together and you’ve got a recipe for misery all round. Experts have talked about the problem of the “data trap” in emerging markets where users simply can’t afford to install and run even legitimate apps because of the data use, undermining the entire mobile economy. Add in unexpected data used by malware and the problem intensifies.

It’s worsened by the way mobile malware intentionally operates in the background so that users don’t know why their data is depleting so rapidly. Social media in developing markets is full of posts from users mystified by finding “a whole 3gig gone under 24 hours” or being shocked to discover that “my untouched data and airtime is gone.”

In the short term, mobile operators get the blame, with customers understandably outraged that their expensive data allowance has disappeared and wondering if they’ve been ripped off. The mobile operators then have to handle complaints, endure negative publicity, and potentially lose customers if they have competitors in the market.

In the long term, it’s bad news for mobile internet as a whole. If users don’t know about mobile malware and how to tackle it, then they may conclude it’s simply not affordable to use a smartphone at all. That’s bad news for them, bad news for society and bad news for mobile operators.