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Creating an Android Open Source Research Device on Your PC

August 23, 2018

By Aric Toler

Translations: Русский

Most digital research can be done without any issues on a desktop or laptop computer; however, sometimes you may need to use a mobile device to use particular applications. This guide will provide a walk-through on setting up a virtual Android device on a PC to conduct open source research. Android emulation is also possible on a Mac, but will require a different application.

So, why set up an Android virtual device for conducting open source research? Most people can use their actual phones or web applications for much of the same purposes, but there are some reasons to go through the trouble:

  • Privacy.  When conducting research on your own phone, you have to consider if you are broadcasting — accidentally or otherwise — personal information. On an Android virtual device, you can be anonymous and not use your personal device, accounts, or phone numbers to conduct research.
  • GPS Spoofing. While you can spoof your location on a real phone or tablet, it is extremely easy to do so on an Android virtual device. As will be detailed in this guide, you can enter whatever coordinates you want to access information on various apps.
  • Cost. A particularly simple reason to set up an Android virtual device is that you will not have to buy another phone just to conduct research, whether you already have an iPhone or would want to buy a second Android device to separate from your real phone number and accounts.

Installation: Genymotion and VirtualBox

For this guide, we will use Genymotion to set up an Android virtual device on Windows. We used Windows 10 for this guide, and your results may vary if you have a different version.

Genymotion is one of the more popular Android emulation programs for Windows, primarily used by application developers. However, there is a free version of the program that’s for personal use (mostly for gaming). The program runs off of Oracle’s VirtualBox program, which will need to be installed alongside Genymotion.

Firstly, set up a Genymotion account for personal use, found here. Be sure to select “Gaming” in the Usage type field. You will need to enter a real email address for a confirmation step.

After registration and account validation, select the “Download Genymotion for personal use” link below the 30-day trial and purchase options.

After following this link, you will need to go through with another couple of clicks to get the installation file.

If you have not already installed Oracle’s VirtualBox program, you will need to choose the first, larger file, as Genymotion runs off of that program.

Depending on your Windows security settings, your computer may have a minor panic attack with VirtualBox software installation. You will need to provide permissions to install the program if you want to use Genymotion.

After you install VirtualBox and Genymotion, you will need to select “Personal Use” from the Usage notice dialogue box.

Congratulations! You’ve installed Genymotion, and are about halfway to using applications on your Android virtual device.

Setting Up Your Android Virtual Device

On Genymotion, you can set up multiple Android virtual devices that will emulate particular devices, including phones and tablets. We set up a Pixel 2 XL virtual device in this walk-through, but you can also set up a custom Android device, a Samsung Galaxy, or a range of other options. It may be useful to set up virtual devices with different versions of Android in case there are compatibility issues with particular applications.

You will need to sign in with your Genymotion account to access their range of virtual device data.

GApps

An Android virtual device is mostly useless for research purposes without access to the Google Play app store. We recommend setting up new Gmail account just for your virtual devices.

After you have a Gmail account set up for your future Google Play downloads, click the “Open GApps” button on the top-right of the Genymotion user interface. In other guides about setting up Android virtual devices, such as an excellent one from IntelTechniques, Genymotion did not have GApps prepared, making the process much more painless for us now.

Clicking the GApps button will send you through a handful of download and installation processes. Eventually, your virtual device will restart, with GApps active. Now, you can go through the Google Play store with a Gmail (or whatever other service you use) address and install applications onto the virtual device.

Installing and Using Apps

Just like with a real phone, you can search for and install apps onto your Android virtual device through the Google Play store. For example, you can search for and install the Whisper app without any issues.

However, your virtual device will not have any GPS location on by default, making some apps like Whisper almost useless.

On the top-right of the Genymotion user interface, just below the battery icon, select the “GPS” button.

This button will pop up a new box allowing you to input exact coordinates to spoof. Here, we put in the coordinates for Central Park. After resetting the Whisper app, we will find posts that were done near the spoofed coordinates in New York City.

The Snapchat Problem

Most applications will work fine on your virtual device; however, there are exceptions. Snapchat, in particular, does not currently work with Genymotion. In some other Android emulators, such as BlueStacks, you can install and boot up Snapchat, but the app will not allow you to sign in on a “fake” phone. Snapchat may work in future updates of Genymotion and other emulators, but for now, it may be more trouble than it’s worth to get it to work on a virtual device.

Conclusion

While using Genymotion for an Android virtual device is not a perfect solution, most apps will work fine, with the added option of easily spoofing GPS coordinates to maximize news gathering and verification capabilities. Additionally, you will have an added layer of confidence that your device or accounts will not be compromised or snooped-upon, especially with some apps developed by questionable organizations.

If you have any suggestions, comments, or corrections for this guide, please reply in the comments or tweet at us (@Bellingcat). Additionally, if you have any suggestions for apps that are especially useful in open source research, new gathering, or verification, please send on suggestions.

Special thanks to IntelTechniques for producing a similar guide on setting up an earlier version of Genymotion.

Aric Toler

Aric Toler has written with Bellingcat since 2015 and currently leads the Eurasia/Eastern Europe team. Along with his research into topics in the former Soviet Union, he organizes and leads Bellingcat's Russian-language workshops for journalists and researchers. He graduated with an MA in Slavic Languages & Literatures from the University of Kansas in 2013, focusing on Russian literature and intellectual history. After graduation, he worked for two years as an intelligence specialist in the private sector. If you have any questions, or have a story idea related to eastern Europe or Eurasia, you can contact him at arictoler@bellingcat.com

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One Comment

  1. Dave LaFontaine

    Excellent guide – and it occurs to me that if you’re doing real heavy duty research into Phishing or Malware sites, that a sandboxed Windows-on-Mac environment would make me feel a while hell of a lot more secure. (Can’t just keep unboxing airgapped laptops every time a really noxious RAT installs itself.)

    I’ll share this with our network of investigative journalists.

    One further suggestion: years ago, when writing the “…for Dummies” book on mobile web design, we were looking for mobile test beds. At the time, DeviceAnywhere.com maintained racks of mobile devices that you could log into and load your app on, that would then also connect to wireless networks like Orange or Nortel or whatever. They’ve since been acquired, but it seems the new company offers a similar service https://appexperience.sigos.com/#real-devices

    Reply

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