Researchers have identified 41 apps from Google's Play store that could expose bank information and leak e-mail and Facebook passwords, among other things. Though the programs had both secure sockets layer (SSL) and transport layer security (TLS) protocols—the two main ways most Internet things are encrypted—using standard hacks, the computer scientists, who presented their paper at the ACM Computer and Communications Security Conference, easily got past those. "We could gather bank account information, payment credentials for PayPal, American Express and others," the researchers, from Germany's Leibniz University of Hannover and Philipps University of Marburg, wrote. "Furthermore, Facebook, email and cloud storage credentials and messages were leaked, access to IP cameras was gained and control channels for apps and remote servers could be subverted." Yikes.
They won't say which apps, leaving that up to our imaginations, which obviously think-up our exact phone layout. But, Ars Technica's Dan Goodin offers some hints. "Descriptions such as a 'generic online banking app' suggest that most if not all of them were offered by third-party developers rather than the websites or services they connected to," he writes. "Readers who are concerned their apps are vulnerable should start their inquiry by looking at those that are developed by outside firms." It's also possible that there are more than 41 very unsafe apps, as the researchers selected 100 of the 1,074 potentially vulnerable ones to test. Good luck.
While SSL and TLS are effective safety measures on their own, it turns out both app makers and websites aren't implementing them properly. This research found that these apps would accept fraudulent certificates, making them "potentially vulnerable to MITM attacks," write the researchers. A previous study found that less than 10 percent of the 200,000 most popular websites offering SSL protection could withstand what is called a browser exploit against SSL/TLS, also known as BEAST, as the graphs below from SSL Pulse, a website that monitors SSL and TLS effectiveness show.
When the BEAST attack was discovered about a year ago, a fix came along not long after. However, many popular websites haven't implemented it, leading to the vulnerabilities above. Similarly, there are ways these app makers can improve their SSL protection, as Goodin explains. "One is for the type of static analysis they performed to be done at the time a user is installing an app. Another is to use a technique known as certificate pinning, which makes it much harder for an app or browser to accept fraudulent certificates like the ones used in the study," he writes.
The lesson here is: Even when things look safe, they might not be. And maybe also that app and website makers don't care that much about protecting users. Or that they are lazy. Or, delete every app on your Android phone that are developed by outside firms. Also, SSL isn't that safe all the time. There are a lot of possible things we can learn from this, it turns out. Take your pick.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.