Researchers reveal new rootkit threat to Android security

NC State researchers say rootkit method ignores the kernel, attacks the framework

A research team at North Carolina State University led by Professor Xuxian Jiang recently announced that a security flaw in Android Version 4.0.4 and below could exploited by a rootkit with relative ease, according to an official university research blog post.

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Like most Android malware, the rootkit can be distributed as a malicious app, opening up a host of potential vulnerabilities on any device on which it is installed. However, it functions in a different way.

Instead of directly attacking the operating system kernel, blog author Matt Shipman wrote, the rootkit approach targets a flaw in the Android framework -- creating a host of possibilities for a hacker.

"This would be a more sophisticated type of attack than we've seen before, specifically tailored to smartphone platforms," said Jiang. "The rootkit was not that difficult to develop, and no existing mobile security software is able to detect it."

A YouTube demonstration highlights the simplicity of the rootkit -- the user was able to hijack a standard Nexus S with ease, reprogramming the browser icon to launch Angry Birds instead. Apps can be hidden on the device but remain installed and functional, which could enable a hacker to conceal malicious software from unsuspecting users.

"This has the potential to cause some real mischief," the video's narrator says.

Jiang's team is working on a fix for the problem, according to the blog post.

The blog post notes that Jiang is the founder of the Android Malware Genome Project, a large-scale academic research effort into Android malware. Before the founding of that project, Jiang also helped identify security holes in the ad libraries used by mobile advertisers on the Android platform, warning of their vulnerability.

Email Jon Gold at jgold@nww.com and follow him on Twitter at @NWWJonGold.

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