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Computer scientists have identified a weakness in the Android mobile operating system that allows users to be tricked into silently installing hidden malware.

A research team led by Xuxian Jiang at North Carolina State University discovered that they could redirect a fandroid's touchscreen taps - a technique known as clickjacking - to inject a rootkit that can evade detection and maliciously alter the operation of the device.

Xuxian was able to develop a "proof-of-concept prototype rootkit that attacks the Android framework, rather than the underlying operating system kernel". The vulnerability was uncovered during a more general study into the security measures, or lack of, in various smartphone platforms.

The rootkit, which could be bundled with an app and is said to be undetectable by anti-virus packages, would allow an attacker to replace a smartphone's browser with a version that logs key strokes to capture bank card data and uploads them to a hacker-controlled website. The malign technology can hide or replace any or all of the apps on a smartphone, as illustrated in this video:

The clickjacking vulnerability is present in Android 4.0.4 (Ice Cream Sandwich) and earlier versions of the smartphone OS. The mechanism - described as a "user interface readdresing attack" - means the malware can be installed by a user thinking he or she is agreeing to some other action and without a reboot. No privilege escalation is needed, nor any nobbling of the operating system's core kernel.

"This would be a more sophisticated type of attack than we’ve seen before, specifically tailored to smartphone platforms," Xuxian explained in a NCSU blog post about the work. "The rootkit was not that difficult to develop, and no existing mobile security software is able to detect it."

"Now that we’ve identified the problem, we can begin working on ways to protect against attacks like these," he added. Xuxian is founder of the Android Malware Genome Project, a collaborative research effort into existing Android malware, launched in late May. ®

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

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