Google Silently Patches Android Authentication Flaw

Google is implementing a server-side fix to address the authentication flaw that allows third-parties to access Android user data on Google Calendar, Contacts and Picasa.

Google is planning to fix a security issue that could potentially allow hackers and cyber-crooks to access the personal information of people who use the company's Android mobile operating system. Google plans to push out the fix within the next week.

Researchers at Germany's University of Ulm originally found the vulnerability and published their findings on May 13. The flaw only impacts Android applications that authenticate with Google services, such as Calendar and Contacts. If the user opens a WiFi network and tries to access those services, a hacker could potentially intercept the authentication token and use it to log in to the user account for up to two weeks.

"Today we're starting to roll out a fix which addresses a potential security flaw that could, under certain circumstances, allow a third-party access to data available in Calendar and Contacts," a Google spokesman told eWEEK on May 18.

Since the problem does not exist in Android 2.3.4 or 3.0-the "Honeycomb" version specifically designed for tablets-security experts recommended that users upgrade their phones to the latest version. However, many Android users are unable to upgrade their smartphones without jailbreaking their device. In addition, wireless carriers have been notoriously slow about upgrading the Android operating system updates. Verizon Wireless customers, for example, with Android phones are still on 2.2.2, for example.

However, Google will implement its own fix instead of waiting for the carriers to roll out the operating system updates to Android handsets.

"This fix requires no action from users and will roll out globally over the next few days," the Google spokesperson said.

The patch doesn't require a software update on the Android device themselves, as Google will be implementing a server-side patch to address the issue, according to Graham Cluley, a senior technology consultant at Sophos. The "silent fix" will be automatic and worldwide, affecting all versions of the Android OS, Cluley said.

Based on Google's own statistics, 99.7 percent of Android phones currently in use are running Android versions 2.3.3 or older and are vulnerable to this kind of man-in-the-middle impersonation attack.

The work will be complete and all devices secured from this vulnerability within the week, when the servers begin forcing Android phones to use an encrypted HTTPS connection when syncing data. Picasa's sync software with the Gallery app still uses the unencrypted HTTP connection. A fix for Picasa is still under investigation, Cluley noted.

Even with the fix in place, Android users should consider avoiding public WiFi networks, security experts said. Smartphone users are also vulnerable to another type of man-in-the-middle attack called "session ID stealing" where attackers intercept an active session ID over the open wireless connection, Mike Paquette, chief strategy officer of TopLayer Networks, told eWEEK.

For this attack to succeed, the Android user would have to be in the same physical location as the miscreant and connected to the same wireless network, it was likely that attackers would target areas with large numbers of users of public WiFi, Paquette said.

While this problem is being fixed relatively quickly, Cluley was concerned how easy it would be to fix a serious vulnerability on the Android devices in the future since Google depends on manufacturers and carriers to push out operating system updates.