Phone Maker Blu Trades Chinese Spyware for Google Software

Blu R1 HD

It ain’t easy being Blu right now. The Miami-based, low-cost Android phone maker has rocketed to success by selling unlocked smartphones at rock-bottom prices, most notably the $49 R1 HD phone on Amazon.

But while Blu swiftly figured out how to source good hardware, software has been a harder skill to grow. Last month, researchers for security firm Kryptowire found that the firmware-updating app built into some Blu R1 HD phones was sending the contents of owners’ text messages to a server in China.

While Blu has spent the past few years swapping out the default software on its phones for Google-approved, Blu-supervised alternatives, the offending app from Shanghai Adups Technology Co. was the last major piece of software that Blu didn’t have visibility into; it went rogue, Blu CEO Sammy Ohev-Zion said.

“We have an email history with Adups saying we did not want that functionality on our devices, and they violated our request,” he said. “We are a hard-working, American, family-owned business, and we are the last people on Earth that would engage in anything that would abuse our hard-earned customer relationship.”

Blu pushed an update to prevent the Adups software from sending details home, signed a contract with Kryptowire to have the security firm monitor their phones for the next year to make sure none of their vendors pull a fast one again, and is swapping out Adups’s update utility for Google’s, Ohev-Zion said.

“Any new model that launches from December onwards will have Google’s OTA application instead of Adups,” Ohev-Zion said. That may also include new units of the R1 HD, which is currently testing Google’s firmware app.

The company has learned a lesson, and will “not install third-party applications where we don’t have the source code and don’t understand the behavior,” Ohev-Zion pledged. “Today, no Blu phone has this problem.”

Blu will also write a privacy policy to make clear whhich data its firmware collects, he said.

Blu Goes Google

Blu started out in the US back in 2011 with Android phones that were clearly sourced directly from China, often with not much alteration to their default software. That’s changed a lot with time, Ohev-Zion said.

“We’ve evolved greatly from four or five years ago when we didn’t have management software. Back then, we didn’t have Google certification, and we didn’t go through Google compliance testing. Now every single one of our devices is shipped with Google certification, and today we have a relationship with Google.”

Blu is also joining what Ohev-Zion described as a Google “fastpass” program provided by chipmaker Mediatek, which helps Android phone makers implement cleaner Google Android. That will make Blu phones “like a whole Google phone,” he said.

“We’ll be using this specific baseline from now on to develop official software which will allow us to update much faster. Phones launching in January will start to have the Google fastpass baseline,” he said.

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