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Android flaw poses drive-by data slurp risk

There's no patch for it, so users should take care

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

A security officer has stumbled across a serious vulnerability in the built-in browser of Android smartphones that might allow hackers to lift data from SD cards in the Google handsets.

Thomas Cannon discovered the JavaScript-related vulnerability outside his normal job as a corporate security officer. The hole would allow malicious websites to snatch the contents of any file stored on the SD card of an Android smartphone, provided the name and directory path of a targeted file is known beforehand.

It would also be possible to retrieve a limited range of other data and files stored on the phone using this vulnerability, as explained in an advisory and video here.

The weakness arises because of a combination of factors that mean that when a file from a content provider is opened, the built-in Android browser will run JavaScript without prompting the user.

JavaScript running in the context of a content provider can use xmlhttp (ie AJAX) requests to slurp up the contents of files (and other data). Redirects can then be used to post the data back to a malicious website.

"I came across the vulnerability while doing some independent security research and writing a JavaScript-based demo to show a weakness in the way some applications share data via Android's Content Providers," Cannon explained. "I was surprised that an HTML page with JavaScript could query the content providers and realised that this could be triggered by a malicious site."

Cannon has gone public ahead of a update to the Android OS he reckons will be necessary to fix the problem in order to warns users of the risk. He was keen to stress he has no anti-Android axe to grind, going so far as to praise Google for its handling of the issue this far.

"Google's response so far has been excellent," Cannon said. "I would not release an advisory while there is a chance that users will be able to receive a patch in a reasonable time frame. However in this case I don't believe they will be able to.

"This is not because of Google's response process, but because of the way handsets have to receive OS updates from manufacturers. I therefore believe it better that users are given a chance to protect themselves at an early opportunity, or at least understand the risks," he said.

Cannon suggests that Android users should either disable JavaScript or use an alternative browser - such as Opera - to mitigate against the risk of attacks pending a more comprehensive fix from Google. Another means of mitigating the vulnerability would be to use a potentially vulnerable handset without an SD card.

In a statement, a Google spokesman acknowledged the problem and said it was in the process of developing and releasing a patch.

We've developed a fix for an issue in the Android browser that could, under certain circumstances, allow for accessing files on a user's SD card. We're working to issue the fix to our partners and open source Android.

Google's security team told Cannon that they are aiming for a fix to go into Gingerbread maintenance release. "They don't have a time frame for OEMs to release the update though, which is an issue, as that is the weak link," he added. ®

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