With privacy in the mobile phone market an increasing concern, news has broken that several popular Android phones can be exploited in order to snoop on users. A weakness in the operating system can allow access to the baseband software of certain phones, compromising their safety and security.
This is more than a minor worry, as attackers could potentially use this vulnerability in order to capture personal information. And this affects a wide variety of Android devices, including the Google Pixel 2, Huawei’s Nexus 6P and the Samsung Galaxy S8+.
Baseband firmware is used to enable smartphones to communicate with a cellphone network, which has a fundamental impact on central uses of mobile technology, such as connecting to the Internet and making phone calls.
For this reason, baseband is usually completely separate from the rest of a mobile device. But researchers have discovered that many Android smartphones enable Bluetooth and USB accessories to access the baseband. This then enables attackers to run commands on a connected Android phone.
Syed Rafiul Hussain and Imtiaz Karim, the two co-authors of the research, told TechCrunch that “the impact of these attacks ranges from sensitive user information exposure to complete service disruption”. The researchers are continuing to investigate the issue, and will present their full findings at some point next month.
Clearly this will be something of an embarrassment for Google, at a time when its Android operating system has become hugely popular. Android has already established itself as the most prominent mobile operating system in the world, and Android-driven devices have sold particularly well in recent years.
While the Apple iPhone remains an iconic brand, Samsung, driven by the Android operating system, has become the biggest seller of mobile phones worldwide, with the Samsung Galaxy range proving particularly popular with consumers. It will be concerning then for many regular mobile phone users that this exploit is possible, and many will be waiting to learn of the full extent of this issue.
And researchers have already discovered 14 commands that can be used to trick the vulnerable Android phones affected into leaking sensitive service date, while phon ecalls can also be manipulated by the workaround.
The good news for Android users, and Google as a company, is that not all devices are vulnerable to the trick. Not all of the same commands and manipulation can be used in every case, and some smartphones are completely immune to the issue. It would certainly take an extremely skilled person in order to take advantage of the exploit, but the fact remains that such exploitation is undoubtedly possible.
“If your smartphone is connected with a headphone or any other Bluetooth device, the attacker can first exploit the inherent vulnerabilities of the Bluetooth connection and then inject those malformed AT commands,” the researchers wrote.
Google has acknowledged that the issue, while Samsung is already working on patching its devices.