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Google moves fast to plug Android Wi-Fi data leaks

Gregg Keizer | May 18, 2011
'Impressive,' says mobile security expert on Google's quick move to fix flaw.

Google today confirmed that it's starting to roll out a server-side patch for a security vulnerability in most Android phones that could let hackers snatch important credentials at public Wi-Fi hotspots.

"Today we're starting to roll out a fix which addresses a potential security flaw that could, under certain circumstances, allow a third party access to data available in Calendar and Contacts," said a Google spokesman in an emailed statement. "This fix requires no action from users and will roll out globally over the next few days."

Computerworld blogger JR Raphael was the first to break the news of Google's move to fix the flaw.

Google will apparently apply a fix on its servers since it does not need to issue an over-the-air update to Android phones.

Experts applauded Google's fast reaction.

"It's impressive how quickly Google fixed this," said Kevin Mahaffey, chief technology officer and a co-founder of San Francisco-based mobile security firm Lookout. "Google's security team, especially on Android, is very, very quick to deal with issues."

Mike Paquette, the chief strategy officer for Hudson, Mass.-based Top Layer Security, agreed.

"The Google team talks about how they breathe security in and out, and this is a good example," said Paquette, who called the speed with which Google addressed the issue "pretty good."

Whatever Google is implementing will shut the security hole that three German researchers publicized last Friday.

According to the University of Ulm researchers, who tested another researcher's contention last February that Android phones sent authentication data in the clear, hackers could easily spoof a Wi-Fi hotspot -- in a public setting such as an airport or coffee shop -- then snatch information that users' phones transmitted during synchronization.

In Android 2.3.3 and earlier, the phone's Calendar and Contacts apps transmit information via unencrypted HTTP, then retrieve an authentication token from Google. Hackers could eavesdrop on the HTTP traffic at a public hotspot, lift authentication tokens and use them for up to two weeks to access users' Web-based calendars, their contacts and also the Picasa photo storage and sharing service.

Other applications that use Google's ClientLogin Protocol, including third-party Android apps as well as traditional desktop software like Mozilla's Thunderbird email program, were also vulnerable, the researchers said.

"The implications of this vulnerability reach from disclosure to loss of personal information for the Calendar data," said the three researchers, Bastian Koenings, Jens Nickels, and Florian Schaub. "For Contact information, private information of others is also affected, potentially including phone numbers, home addresses, and email addresses."


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