Fortnite: When Dollars and Cents Trumps Security! | Liquidmatrix Security Digest

When Epic Games recently announced and subsequently released Fortnite for Android, it took the decision to bypass the Play Store and ask users to side-load the app. After I read that Epic Games’ brilliant idea was to ask Android users to essentially downgrade the security on their devices, there was a lot of head-on-desk action.

Side-loading an app onto an Android device is essentially asking the user to download it from a website instead of the Play Store and then ignore the Android warnings about installing apps from untrusted locations. In more recent Android versions this safety net is called “Install unknown apps” and when a user tries to install an app directly from a website, the operating system will ask them a few times if they really want to do this. Note that this is does not affect users on Apple iOS devices as Apple locks down app distribution to the App Store.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand both the business reason and the developer logic that drove Epic Games to release the Android version in this way. For developers, Android’s lack of homogeneity means they often have to validate their app across multiple stores, each with its own constraints and minimum requirements. Thus, what should be a simple app release can gain an Nth degree of complexity; increased time to develop and associated maintenance, leading to increased cost. This is not an attractive prospect for any vendor wanting to deliver a product. Added to the fact that the Play Store takes a 30% cut on all transactions, you can see why an app vendor would look to avoid this if they could! Let’s face it, gaming companies have to make money in order to recuperate the investment in the development and maintenance of the game.

You may be reading this wondering why incentivising users to side-load popular games is really a problem. Fundamentally, it introduces bad habits to users. These bad habits break down the general foundations of mobile device security. The Fortnite game has a huge following and we can’t neglect the message being sent not only to users but also other app developers.

In InfoSec, we constantly argue the benefits of teaching users about safe and secure principals when using electronic devices, browsing the web and installing applications. The Epic Games Android installation is the antithesis of these teachings, instead sending a clear message to users — especially a younger generation that will one day enter the workforce — that it is ok to install apps from any location.

The fact is, Epic Games is inadvertently making it easier for a malicious party to trick users into downloading fake apps and providing an opportunity for these malicious parties to introduce fake apps in the official store. This has been seen before, especially in the banking industry, and was even the case for Fortnite itself during the beta period. Google Pay Protect is one element of sanity in this situation as it will scan the apps on the device. Unfortunately this is only a recent addition to Android and is not always available depending on the version or the manufacturer of the device.

The issues continue even after the app is installed and being used. Fortnite, like many games, is free to play but relies extensively on in-app purchases — the pay to win paradigm. By not using the Play Store to deliver the app originally, the vendor needs to set-up its own payment infrastructure and ensure it is safe. This in itself is not an easy task and can be thwart with errors and potential for data loss.

Stepping back and analysing the situation, where does one place blame? I think a majority of us in the industry, myself included, will scorn the vendor for not doing the right thing and promoting bad habits to users. Looking beyond the initial rapid shame response from the industry, I think it is interesting to put oneself in the vendor’s shoes. I can see how the lack of standardisation, draconian process and exorbitant fees would make it unattractive to go to market via the various app stores in the “proper way”. Perhaps it is time for companies like Apple and Google to rethink the app distribution model, so all can benefit from a secure platform?

Realistically, I believe that this situation just boils down to the ability for a business to make a profit and you know what, this isn’t the first time or place where security has been compromised or downgraded because of money. Let’s face it, we see it all the time — most recently in IoT security and more generally in corporate security when a security risk is accepted instead of investing time and funds in fixing it.

This is why we can’t have secure things!

Update: Seems like fake Fortnite apps are already in the wild, more here

Thanks to Hannah Finch for the editorial review

Originally published at on August 16, 2018.

Principal security engineer & threat researcher providing information security engineering & incident response leadership. Spending my time researching threats!

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