Feeds

Backdoor sniffed in ZTE's US Android smartphones

Dial R for Root

Choosing a cloud hosting partner with confidence

Chinese handset manufacturer ZTE has confirmed the presence of a backdoor in one of its Android smartphones.

ZTE's Score M ships with an application featuring a hardcoded password that gives the user, or software running on the device, administrator-level access. Running the program with the password spawns a root shell prompt on the Linux-powered mobes, allowing the phone to be completely taken over.

News of the ZTE Score M smartphone backdoor first surfaced last week in posts on the code-sharing website pastebin.com. The password needed to access the backdoor, located in the /system/bin/sync_agent file, is readily available online.

The world's fourth largest mobe-maker acknowledged a problem, but said it was restricted to the Score M, which runs Android 2.3.4 and is distributed through MetroPCS in the US. ZTE is working on an "over the air" patch to close the security hole, and the handset manufacturer insists that the issue does not affect Skate smartphones - contrary to internet rumours.

Mobile security firm Lookout advises users of the model to be particularly careful about apps they download and websites they visit until they get the security patch from ZTE. The poorly protected setuid executable on the smartphones allows an application to grant itself superuser privileges and run as the root user, Lookout explains.

"This type of access allows an attacker full control over a target device – which includes the ability to install or uninstall applications without notice and access to any sensitive personal information on a device," Lookout warns.

"While this issue does not expose a remotely accessible vulnerability on affected phones, it is an issue that could be exploited by targeted, malicious applications installed to the phone. In addition, affected users should download and install patches provided by ZTE and/or Metro PCS as soon as they are rolled out to their device," it adds.

The sync_agent tool might have been put there to manage preloaded applications, such as MetroPCS Visual Voicemail or MetroStudio, according to Lookout.

Dmitri Alperovitch, co-founder of security startup CrowdStrike, said ZTE was using the backdoor to update the smartphone's software, suggesting that the feature was placed there deliberately. However he said that it was unclear to him if the application was planted with malicious intent or left available as the result of some careless oversight, Reuters reports.

"There are rumours about backdoors in Chinese equipment floating around," Alperovitch said. "That's why it's so shocking to see it blatantly on a device."

The circumstances of the problem, especially the fact that the problem was restricted to smartphones supplied to the US, is bound to provide plenty of fodder for conspiracy theorists. China is repeatedly accused of using technology to spy on the West's high-tech biz, defence contractors, human right activists and energy firms. Allegations of backdoors in devices supplied by Chinese network equipment manufacturers have been a hot topic among Western politicians. ®

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

More from The Register

next story
FYI: OS X Yosemite's Spotlight tells Apple EVERYTHING you're looking for
It's on by default – didn't you read the small print?
Russian hackers exploit 'Sandworm' bug 'to spy on NATO, EU PCs'
Fix imminent from Microsoft for Vista, Server 2008, other stuff
Edward who? GCHQ boss dodges Snowden topic during last speech
UK spies would rather 'walk' than do 'mass surveillance'
Microsoft pulls another dodgy patch
Redmond makes a hash of hashing add-on
NOT OK GOOGLE: Android images can conceal code
It's been fixed, but hordes won't have applied the upgrade
Apple grapple: Congress kills FBI's Cupertino crypto kybosh plan
Encryption would lead us all into a 'dark place', claim G-Men
'LulzSec leader Aush0k' found to be naughty boy not worthy of jail
15 months home detention leaves egg on feds' faces as they grab for more power
China is ALREADY spying on Apple iCloud users, claims watchdog
Attack harvests users' info at iPhone 6 launch
prev story

Whitepapers

Forging a new future with identity relationship management
Learn about ForgeRock's next generation IRM platform and how it is designed to empower CEOS's and enterprises to engage with consumers.
Why and how to choose the right cloud vendor
The benefits of cloud-based storage in your processes. Eliminate onsite, disk-based backup and archiving in favor of cloud-based data protection.
Three 1TB solid state scorchers up for grabs
Big SSDs can be expensive but think big and think free because you could be the lucky winner of one of three 1TB Samsung SSD 840 EVO drives that we’re giving away worth over £300 apiece.
Reg Reader Research: SaaS based Email and Office Productivity Tools
Read this Reg reader report which provides advice and guidance for SMBs towards the use of SaaS based email and Office productivity tools.
Security for virtualized datacentres
Legacy security solutions are inefficient due to the architectural differences between physical and virtual environments.