Roughly half of all Android handsets are vulnerable to a newly discovered hack that in some cases allows attackers to surreptitiously modify or replace seemingly benign apps with malicious ones that steal passwords and other sensitive data.
The "Android installer hijacking" vulnerability, as it has been dubbed by researchers from Palo Alto Networks, works only when apps are being downloaded from third-party app stores or when a user clicks on an app promotion advertisement hosted by a mobile advertisement library. Technically, it's based on what's known as a Time-of-check to time-of-use vulnerability. Affected devices fail to verify that the app being installed at the time of use was the one the end user approved during the time of check, which occurs when a user approves app permissions such as network access or access to the contacts database. The bug involves the way the system application called PackageInstaller installs app files known as APKs.
"A vulnerability exists in this process because while the user is reviewing this information, the attacker can modify or replace the package in the background," Palo Alto Networks researcher Zhi Xu wrote in a blog post published Tuesday. "Verified with Android OS source code posted in AOSP [Android Open Source Project], it shows that the PackageInstaller on affected versions does not verify the APK file at the 'time of use.' Thus, in the "time of use' (i.e., after clicking the 'install button), the PackageInstaller can actually install a different app with an entirely different set of permissions."