Qualcomm Security Flaw Endangers Millions of Android Devices

A vulnerability introduced to Android smartphones five years ago was fixed in March, but many exposed devices are no longer supported by their OEMs.

Qualcomm chips

Qualcomm has patched a security flaw that put Android smartphones powered by the chip maker's products at risk of data theft, but millions of the devices could remain at risk.

Security researchers with Mandiant's Red Team discovered the vulnerability earlier this year, and Qualcomm developed a fix for it and sent it to device makers in March. However, the problem is that the vulnerability was first introduced five years ago and has infected countless Android-based smartphones. Because of the ages of some of these devices, many are no longer supported by their OEMs and are unlikely to receive the fix.

Researchers with security software provider FireEye outlined the security issue—labeled CVE-2016-2060—in a blog post May 5, saying it was hard to determine how many devices were affected because of how long the vulnerability was in the wild before being discovered and the large number of devices that could have been impacted. Qualcomm is the world's largest supplier of systems-on-a-chip (SoCs) for smartphones.

"Since many flagship and non-flagship devices use Qualcomm chips and/or Qualcomm code, it is possible that hundreds of models are affected across the last five years," Jake Valletta, senior security consultant at Mandiant, a FireEye company, wrote in the post on the FireEye blog. "To provide some API numbers, Android Gingerbread (2.3.x) was released in 2011. This vulnerability was confirmed on devices running Lollipop (5.0), KitKat (4.4), and Jellybean MR2 (4.3), and the Git commit referenced in the post is Ice Cream Sandwich MR1 (4.0.3)."

According to Valletta, CVE-2016-2060 is found on the "netd" daemon, a part of the Android operating system. The security flaw was introduced when Qualcomm created new APIs as part of its network manager system service to offer improved networking capabilities to smartphones, such as better tethering. Through this, smartphones were connected to the netd daemon and thus exposed to the vulnerability.

Through the exploit, attackers could gain access to a smartphone user's SMS database and phone history, according to FireEye. This is particularly true in older Android devices. Google mentioned the vulnerability in its latest security bulletin released May 2, calling the severity of the flaw "high" but noting that it doesn't affect its Nexus phones.

FireEye noted that there are two ways that attackers can exploit the vulnerability. The first is to gain physical access to an unlocked smartphone, with the second being to have the user unknowingly install a malicious application on it.

"Any application could interact with this API without triggering any alerts," Valletta wrote. "Google Play will likely not flag it as malicious. It's hard to believe that any antivirus would flag this threat. Additionally, the permission required to perform this is requested by millions of applications, so it wouldn't tip the user off that something is wrong."

Older Android devices are particularly vulnerable. On those systems, the malicious application can gain access to SMS and phone call databases, access the Internet and perform other tasks allowed by the "radio" user, he wrote. Newer devices are less vulnerable—the malicious application can modify some system properties maintained by the Android OS, with the extent of the issues depending on how the device maker is using the system property subsystem.

"It should be noted that once the vulnerability is exploited, there is no indication to the user that something has happened," Valletta wrote. "For example, there is no performance impact or risk of crashing the device."

FireEye researchers praised Qualcomm's fast response to the security flaw, noting that the chip maker has patched the netd daemon and notified the device OEMs. Those device makers need to provide updates for their devices, though Valletta admitted that "many devices will likely never be patched."

FireEye notified Qualcomm of the issue in January.