The vast majority of devices running Google’s Android operating system are vulnerable to attacks that allow adversaries to steal the digital credentials used to access calendars, contacts, and other sensitive data stored on the search giant’s servers, university researchers have warned.
The weakness stems from the improper implementation of an authentication protocol known as ClientLogin in Android versions 2.3.3 and earlier, the researchers from Germany’s University of Ulm said. After a user submits valid credentials for Google Calendar, Contacts and possibly other accounts, the programming interface retrieves an authentication token that is sent in cleartext. Because the authToken can be used for up to 14 days in any subsequent requests on the service, attackers can exploit them to gain unauthorized access to accounts.
“We wanted to know if it is really possible to launch an impersonation attack against Google services and started our own analysis,” the researchers in the university’s Institute of Media Informatics wrote on Friday. “The short answer is: Yes, it is possible, and it is quite easy to do so.”
The researchers’ findings are pretty damning. Although Google has supposedly released a patch to address the problem, it has only been made available for newer versions of Android. 99% of the Android devices currently in use run a version that hasn’t been patched. Android users are being advised to avoid public wi-fi networks to mitigate this incredibly serious problem.
But it’s unlikely that most of the people walking around with Google spyware-laden phones and tablets have even heard about this issue, or could taken action even if they knew (Google’s deals with major mobile carriers give them control over updates to Android devices, which prevents the Monster of Mountain View from delivering all updates directly to users).
For all of its sins, Apple at least refuses to allow carriers to have any say in when and how iOS updates are delivered. That’s not to say that the proprietary business model Apple has built is a good thing, but users should be able to update software for their devices when it is available, and it should be their choice. Smartphones and tablets ought to be under the control of the people who own them, not the giant corporations that sell them.