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Google Issues Patch for Android 'Master Key' Exploit

Google Issues Patch for Android 'Master Key' Exploit
By Barry Levine

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Android's besieged position with Master Key and other threats is a result of its success. As the most popular mobile platform -- research firm Canalys estimates it was on nearly 60 percent of all smart mobile devices sold in Q1 -- it has become the target of choice for individual hackers and criminal rings.
 


Google released a fix Tuesday for the "Master Key" vulnerability that could open up 99 percent of all Android applications to the danger of becoming undetected Trojans. The vulnerability, revealed last week by security firm Bluebox Security, could affect almost 900 million devices.

Google said the fix has gone to OEMs for their Android releases. The vulnerability could allow a hack to avoid the unique cryptographic signature of each application, which is supposed to reflect whether an app has been hacked. The Master Key exploit does its infiltration without any impact on the cryptographic signature.

The vulnerability appears to have been around since the release of Android 1.6, which was released about four years ago. Google's Android Communications Manager Gina Scigliano told news media that some of the OEM partners, like Samsung, as "already shipping the fix to the Android devices."

No Evidence Yet

Scigliano added that Google has not seen "any evidence" of the Master Key hack being exploited in Google Play or other app stores, as seen in results of the company's security scanning tools.

Android's besieged position is a result of its success. As the most popular mobile platform -- research firm Canalys estimates it was on nearly 60 percent of all smart mobile devices sold in Q1 -- it has become the target of choice for individual hackers and criminal rings. Juniper Networks, for instance, has reported that, as of March, an astounding 92 percent of all mobile malware threats were directed at Android devices.

Additionally, although it is Google-driven, the OS is open source and device makers or others are free to modify it, which could open up other vulnerabilities and complicate paths for issuing fixes.

Last week, Bluebox Security's research team announced the vulnerability, which they said would be "completely unnoticed" by an app store, the device or the user. In a posting on the Bluebox blog, CTO Jeff Forristal described the implications as being "huge," and said the Trojan could be exploited for anything, including data theft, access into an enterprise network, creation of a mobile botnet or a takeover of any function on a phone or other device.

Learning from Microsoft

We asked Laura DiDio, an analyst with industry research firm Information Technology Intelligence Consulting, if this latest and possibly biggest-yet Android security vulnerability would affect IT departments' assessment of the platform.

She replied that if she were an IT administrator, "of course I'd be concerned," and she compared the situation to Microsoft's decades-long battle with security threats for its big target, Windows. But, DiDio said, the big historical difference is that, at the height of the attacks on Windows, "we weren't as interconnected as we are now."

This interconnectedness tremendously complicates any threat, she said, and Google "should learn from Microsoft's experience" about how to be pro-active, with documentation, fix schedules, tech support and other actions and infrastructure. DiDio said that as a result of Microsoft's efforts, Windows 8 is "one of the most secure environments today."

Bluebox recommends that, in response to this newest vulnerability, device owners employ an additional level of caution about the identity of any publishers whose apps they want to download, and that enterprises with BYOD [bring your own device] policies prompt all users to update their devices with the latest fixes.

Bluebox also urges enterprises to "see this vulnerability as another driver to move beyond just device management to focus on deep device integrity checking and securing corporate data."
 

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