Google Web-Based Android Market Increases Potential Risk, Security Researchers Warn

A new Web-based app store that allows Android users to remotely download apps to their phone increases the potential fallout of a compromised Google account, security experts say.

Some security vendors are raising the question whether the browser-based version of the Google Android market could open up opportunities for attackers.

Google recently launched a new version of the market that allows a device owner to search for, buy and install applications on their mobile device remotely over the Web from a desktop computer. To do this, all the user needs to do is log in to their Google account.

While the capability was meant as a nod to user convenience, some warn that the functionality increases the potential fallout if someone's Google account is compromised.

"This is just one more reason to create strong passwords, and be ever-vigilant about access to your accounts and devices," blogged Denis Maslennikov, senior malware analyst at Kaspersky Lab.

"If your smartphone is connected to the Internet, you will immediately notice that on the device's screen an install is already taking place," he wrote. "Why is this a problem? When installing apps via the market on your phone, you must agree to all the permissions being requested before the app will actually install on your phone.

"With this new incarnation of the Android Market, those permissions are only displayed on the app page within the Web interface of the Android Market," he continued. "After agreeing to these permissions, the app is installed without any notifications on your mobile device."

Those who attempt to use a stolen Google account to buy and install a rogue application on someone's device, however, face a few hurdles. For example, barring some innovation from the attacker, the application that was purchased would appear on the user's list of applications on the phone, and would have to be opened by the user to run.

However, even if a user notices an unfamiliar application on their phone, any application with the word "free" in it would have a high chance of getting run, opined Roel Schouwenberg, senior malware researcher at Kaspersky Lab.

"Alternatively, a vulnerability could be discovered in Android that allows for some sort of local code execution," he said. "By itself, this vulnerability is low-risk, but paired with this feature, it effectively becomes remote code execution."

A spokesperson for Google said the issue is a theoretical threat that presupposes a Google account has been compromised; the company has worked hard to reduce the possibility of this through a combination of strategies, including phishing and malware detection in Chrome and Gmail as well as default HTTPS in Gmail.

"We don't have any indication that this method has been actively used, and as always, we take swift action against apps and developers who violate our policies," the spokesperson said.

Still, Google should make changes to the remote installation mechanism as soon as possible, blogged Vanja Svajcer, principal virus researcher at SophosLabs, Sophos' research arm.

"Let us hope that the update will come in time to prevent cyber-criminals abusing the Android Market for the automatic installation of malicious software," he wrote.