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Manufacturers’ Android modifications open security leaks, study shows


Researchers at North Carolina State University have discovered a vulnerability with a number of leading Android handsets that could allow hackers to access private data without having to get explicit user permission. According to the study, such a loophole could give malicious hackers the ability to “wipe out the user data, send out SMS messages, or record user conversation on the affected phones – all without asking for any permission.”

Unlike apps for iOS, which alert a user anytime the app wants to access some type of personal information, like location, Android apps use a permissions-based security system, which tells the user up-front what type of information to which the app may at some point need access. Users can then decide whether or not they want to install the app based upon the permissions granted.

The NCSU study shows that the modification of Android by some handset manufacturers creates a hole in the permissions infrastructure, which could allow hackers to access sensitive private information, or perform functions on the phone, even if an app doesn’t explicitly request permission to perform these activities.

“These features are standard and make the phone more user-friendly,” said Xuxian Jiang, assistant professor of computer science at NCSU. “They make the phones more convenient to use, but also more convenient to abuse.”

Using their “Woodpecker” diagnostics tool, which checks to see if an app can perform a function for which it has no permission, the researchers found the following devices to be most vulnerable: HTC Evo 4G, HTC Wildfire S, HTC Legend, Motoroal Droid and Droid X, Samsung Epic 4G, Google Nexus One and Nexus S. Both Google and Motorola have responded to the researchers, confirming their discovery. Samsung and HTC, however, have given the team “major difficulties.”

Despite their findings, the researchers say that manufacturers should not necessarily be condemned for including these loopholes. In addition, they say all is not lost with Android’s permissions-based system.

“Though one may easily blame the manufacturers for developing and/or including these vulnerable apps on the phone firmware, there is no need to exaggerate their negligence,” the team writes in the study. “Specifically, the permission-based security model in Android is a capability model that can be enhanced to mitigate these capability leaks.”

Read the full study here (pdf).

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