Massive Android flaw allows hackers to ‘take over’ and ‘control’ 99% of Android devices
Courtesy John Koetsier,VentrueBeat
Mobile security company Bluebox said today that it recently discovered a vulnerability in Android that makes any Android device released in the last four years vulnerable to hackers who can read your data, get your passwords, and control any function of your phone, including sending texts, making phone calls, or turning on the camera.
That’s almost 900 million Android devices globally.
“A Trojan application … has the ability to read arbitrary application data on the device (email, SMS messages, documents, etc.), retrieve all stored account & service passwords,” Bluebox CTO Jeff Forristal posted. “It can essentially take over the normal functioning of the phone and control any function.”
Bluebox modifed an Android device manufacturer’s application to obtain access to all permissions on the device.
The vulnerability is due to “discrepancies” in how Android apps are approved and verified, Bluebox says, allowing hackers to tamper with application code without changing the app’s cryptographic signatures. That means that an app — any app — which looks perfectly safe and legitimate to an app store, a device, an engineer, or a user actually could actually have malicious code embedded within it.
Forristal said that the details of the bug have already been disclosed to Google back in February, and that Google has “notified their device partners.”
The problem, however, is that because of Android’s fragmented nature and the fact that device manufacturers and mobile carriers release Android updates sporadically if at all, many Android devices are not running the latest software, and cannot be user-updated.
Forristal puts it diplomatically:
“The availability of these updates will widely vary depending upon the manufacturer and model in question.”
If an attacker successfully gains control of an Android device — and Bluebox will be revealing technical details of the vulnerability at hacker conference Black Hat USA 2013 in late July — the hacker essentially gains control of all permissions on the phone or tablet.
That’s a disaster for users, particularly because many Android users, particularly those in Asian and Eastern countries, use the 500+ independent Android app stores that have little or no authentication or verification procedures to ensure that apps that pass through their services are legit, forming a perfect opportunity for unscrupulous and technically-inclined thieves and spies to gain control of your phone.
I’ve asked Google for a comment, and received a very simple, terse response from a Google representative:
We aren’t commenting.
I’m not sure exactly how to interpret that, but I suspect that Google wants this to get as little press as possible while the company scrambles to get as many Android devices updated as possible before the end of July. A source who cannot be identified, however, did say that Google fixed the vulnerability in February and sent the patch to its partners in the beginning of March.
That’s a challenge, because many carriers have installed franken-versions of Android on devices sold two or three years ago with custom user interfaces and crapware pre-installed apps, and may not be able to turn out new, updated versions of their customized Android version quickly … or have a way to distribute them economically.
Users who are unsure of their phone’s update status or who are unable to update should be extremely cautious when installing apps, Bluebox says, and be sure to identify the publisher of the app before installing it. In addition, it’s a good idea to only install apps from Google Play, where Google has at least some ability to verify and validate apps — although that does not provide for perfect safety, Forristal said.
“People should look to upgrade their Android devices and inquire with their device manufacturer to see if they are tackling this issue,” Forristal told me via email. “Enterprises need to invest in comprehensive mobile security solutions that protect the integrity of their data against these kind of vulnerabilities.”