Feeds

Android glitch allows hackers to bug phone calls

Attack pierces defenses on devices from HTC, Samsung, Motorola, Google

Using blade systems to cut costs and sharpen efficiencies

Computer scientists have discovered a weakness in smartphones running Google's Android operating system that allows attackers to secretly record phone conversations, monitor geographic location data, and access other sensitive resources without permission.

Handsets sold by HTC, Samsung, Motorola, and Google contain code that exposes powerful capabilities to untrusted apps, scientists from North Carolina State University said. These “explicit capability leaks” bypass key security defenses built into Android that require users to clearly grant permission before an app gets access to personal information and functions such as text messaging. The code making the circumvention possible is contained in interfaces and services the device manufactures add to enhance the stock firmware supplied by Google.

“We believe these results demonstrate that capability leaks constitute a tangible security weakness for many Android smartphones in the market today,” the researchers wrote in a paper (PDF) scheduled to be presented at next year's Network and Distributed System Security Symposium. “Particularly, smartphones with more pre-loaded apps tend to be more likely to have explicit capability leaks.”

The researchers created a diagnostic app dubbed Woodpecker and ran it on eight smartphones from the four vendors. The most vulnerable was HTC's EVO 4G device, which was found to leak eight functions, including its precise geographic location finder, camera, text message service, and audio recorder. HTC's Legend came in second with six leaks. Samsung's Epic 4G contained three leaks, including the ability to wipe data and applications off the handset. Google's Nexus One and Nexus S contained one leak.

Unlike out-of-the-box iPhones, which allow users to install only apps that have been approved by Apple, the official Android Market performs no security checks on the wares it offers. To compensate, Google built the permission-based security model into the mobile OS to give users control over the personal information apps get to access. Before a new program runs for the first time, it lists the sensitive resources it will access. Users who are uncomfortable with the permissions then have an opportunity to cancel the installation.

The researchers found that the manufacturer-supplied enhancements offer a way to circumvent this permissions-based model. In a video demonstration, they show how an app they designed is able to access audio-recording and SMS functions on an EVO 4G without first getting approval from the user. As a result, the app is able to turn on a recorder that collects nearby audio or phone conversations. The app is also able to send unauthorized text messages.

The researchers said both Google and Motorola have confirmed the vulnerabilities in their handsets, but that HTC and Samsung “have been really slow in responding to, if not ignoring, our reports/inquiries.”

The North Carolina State University scientists are the same team that has uncovered other serious security vulnerabilities in Android-powered smartphones, including the infiltration of at least 12 malicious apps in the Android Market. The data-stealing programs festered there for months and racked up hundreds of thousands of downloads. They were removed only after the researchers alerted Google to their presence.

The researchers say other Android handset models may also be vulnerable to the latest permissions-bypass attack. ®

Follow dangoodin001

Boost IT visibility and business value

More from The Register

next story
Secure microkernel that uses maths to be 'bug free' goes open source
Hacker-repelling, drone-protecting code will soon be yours to tweak as you see fit
How long is too long to wait for a security fix?
Synology finally patches OpenSSL bugs in Trevor's NAS
Israel's Iron Dome missile tech stolen by Chinese hackers
Corporate raiders Comment Crew fingered for attacks
Roll out the welcome mat to hackers and crackers
Security chap pens guide to bug bounty programs that won't fail like Yahoo!'s
HIDDEN packet sniffer spy tech in MILLIONS of iPhones, iPads – expert
Don't panic though – Apple's backdoor is not wide open to all, guru tells us
Researcher sat on critical IE bugs for THREE YEARS
VUPEN waited for Pwn2Own cash while IE's sandbox leaked
Four fake Google haxbots hit YOUR WEBSITE every day
Goog the perfect ruse to slip into SEO orfice
prev story

Whitepapers

Implementing global e-invoicing with guaranteed legal certainty
Explaining the role local tax compliance plays in successful supply chain management and e-business and how leading global brands are addressing this.
Consolidation: The Foundation for IT Business Transformation
In this whitepaper learn how effective consolidation of IT and business resources can enable multiple, meaningful business benefits.
Application security programs and practises
Follow a few strategies and your organization can gain the full benefits of open source and the cloud without compromising the security of your applications.
How modern custom applications can spur business growth
Learn how to create, deploy and manage custom applications without consuming or expanding the need for scarce, expensive IT resources.
Securing Web Applications Made Simple and Scalable
Learn how automated security testing can provide a simple and scalable way to protect your web applications.