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Leaked Android certificates left millions of smartphones vulnerable to malware

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(Image credit: Android Central)

What you need to know

A major Android leak left smartphones from Samsung and LG vulnerable to malware, according to a Googler who brought the issue to light.

According to Łukasz Siewierski (via Mishaal Rahman (opens in new tab)), a Google employee and malware reverse engineer, the certificates of several Android OEMs were leaked, which could have been used to inject malware into smartphones. This vulnerability affected major Android companies, including Samsung, LG, and MediaTek.

Companies like Samsung use platform certificates to validate their apps for use within Android. As described in the issue tracker, apps signed with this certificate run with a "highly privileged user id - android.uid.system - and holds system permissions, including permissions to access user data. Any other application signed with the same certificate can declare that it wants to run with the same user id, giving it the same level of access to the Android operating system."

Basically, apps using these certificates from major OEMs could gain access to system-level permissions without user input. It's especially problematic because bad actors could disguise their apps as system apps with this method. System-level apps have far-reaching permissions and can usually do/see things on your phone that no other app can. In some cases, these apps have more permission than you do.

For example, malware could be injected into something like the Samsung messages app. This could be signed with the Samsung key. It would then appear as an update, pass all security checks during installation, and give malware almost total access to your user data across other apps.

Folks, this is bad. Very, very bad. Hackers and/or malicious insiders have leaked the platform certificates of several vendors. These are used to sign system apps on Android builds, including the "android" app itself. These certs are being used to sign malicious Android apps! https://t.co/lhqZxuxVR9December 1, 2022

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There is some good news, as the Android Security Team highlights that OEMs have apparently addressed the issue.

"OEM partners promptly implemented mitigation measures as soon as we reported the key compromise. End users will be protected by user mitigations implemented by OEM partners. Google has implemented broad detections for the malware in Build Test Suite, which scans system images. Google Play Protect also detects the malware. There is no indication that this malware is or was on the Google Play Store. As always, we advise users to ensure they are running the latest version of Android."

Samsung also told Android Police in a statement that updates have been issued since 2016 and that "there have been no known security incidents regarding this potential vulnerability."

In any case, because of the protections provided by Google Play Protect, users should not have to worry about these vulnerabilities from apps they install from the Play Store. However, you should always be wary of sideloading apps to your Android phone and always ensure you're using the latest version of Android.

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Derrek is a long-time Nokia and LG fanboy who loves astronomy, videography, and sci-fi movies. When he's not working, he's most likely working out or smoldering at the camera.

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