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Drive-by exploit slurps sensitive data from Android phones

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A computer scientist has found a vulnerability in the latest version of Google's Android operating system that can be exploited to disclose sensitive user information.

The data-stealing bug in Android 2.3, aka Gingerbread, allows attackers read and upload pictures, voicemail and other data stored on a handset's SD memory card, Xuxian Jiang, assistant professor in North Carolina State University's department of computer science, reported here. The vulnerability, which is exploited when a user clicks on a booby-trapped link, also allows attackers to upload phone applications to a remote server.

He said proof-of-concept code successfully carries out the attack on a stock Nexus S phone, which comes with Gingerbread installed. It's not clear if the attack works on other brands that also run the latest OS.

“We've incorporated a fix for an issue in the Android browser on a limited number of devices that could, under certain circumstances, allow for accessing application and other types of data stored on the phone,” a Google spokesman wrote in an email. “We're in communication with our partners.”

The fix will ship in an upcoming 2.3 maintenance release, Google said.

The information-disclosure threat is similar to one disclosed in November in Android 2.2 by researcher Thomas Cannon. Both vulnerabilities disclose data only when an attacker knows the precise name and path of a file stored on an SD card. The exploit can't break out of the security sandbox, so system data and email, SMS messages and files stored on the phone itself remain off limits.

Work arounds until a fix is available include, disabling Javascript in the Android browser, using an alternate browser or removing the SD card. ®

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