Android glitch allows hackers to bug phone calls
Attack pierces defenses on devices from HTC, Samsung, Motorola, Google
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. ®
Given the choice between freedom with risks and apparent safety with such restrictions as imposed by, for instance, apple, I think I prefer the freedom.
But google is not perfect...
A title is optional
"Given the choice between freedom with risks and apparent safety with such restrictions as imposed by, for instance, apple, I think I prefer the freedom."
Seriously. What freedom? The freedom that Android users always talk about seems pretty illusory to me.
I opted not to get one of the new iPhones, trading in my iPhone instead for an HTC Sensation with Froyo. Different jailer, same jail--the only difference is that the walls around Android's garden are largely invisible.
Yes, it's true there's no single central authority telling developers what apps they can and can't publish. Instead, there are several--the telcos. They're not (necessarily) as strict as Apple, but make no mistake about it--they can and do control what runs on your phone.
And even what you're allowed to do with it. Remember when HTC announced they'd released tools to root their formerly bootlocked phones? There's a caveat...if the telcos permit it. Mine doesn't. There is currently no way for me to root my Sensation, because the telco I'm with forbids it. (There was, briefly, a version of Easy Fre3vo's temporary root that worked with my phone. HTC released a patch that blocked it.)
Look, I like my Android phone. From a hardware perspective, I think my Sensation is actually demonstrably superior in many respects to the iPhone 4s one of my friends just got. But seriously? Android users need to quit drinking the Kool-Aid. Android is designed to put power in the hands of the customer--but the customer is the telco, not you. You can find plenty of Android apps that feature the sorts of jiggling body bits you won't find on an iPhone, but if you seriously believe that nobody controls your phone, you're deluded. If your phone is totally open, it's not because Android is inherently open--it's because your particular handset maker and telco have chosen to allow it to be.
Sorry to be a bizzkill.
Thankfully I use Cyanogenmod. There are so many Android-related issues like this that I don't even have to think about, assuming my trust in them isn't misplaced (hasn't yet proven to be!).