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Microsoft uncovers a security flaw impacting Android apps with billions of combined downloads

A critical content sharing flaw can allow malicious apps to easily hijack legitimate apps.

Published onMay 4, 2024

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Edgar Cervantes / Android Authority
  • Microsoft has uncovered a security vulnerability affecting Android apps named “Dirty Stream.”
  • This could allow attackers to execute malicious code within popular apps, potentially leading to data theft.
  • The flaw is widespread, with Microsoft identifying vulnerable apps that have billions of combined installations.

Microsoft has brought to light a critical security loophole, potentially affecting countless Android applications. Dubbed “Dirty Stream,” this vulnerability presents a serious threat that could grant someone the ability to take control of apps and steal valuable user information. (h/t: Bleeping Computer)

The heart of the “Dirty Stream” vulnerability lies in the potential for malicious Android apps to manipulate and abuse Android’s content provider system. This system is typically designed to facilitate secure data exchange between different applications on a device. It includes safeguards such as strict isolation of data, the use of permissions attached to specific URIs (Uniform Resource Identifiers), and thorough validation of file paths to ward off unauthorized access.

However, careless implementation of this system can open the door to exploitation. Microsoft’s researchers found that incorrect use of “custom intents” — the messaging system that allows Android app components to communicate — can expose sensitive areas of an app. For example, vulnerable apps may fail to adequately check file names or paths, granting a malicious app the chance to sneak in harmful code camouflaged as legitimate files.

What’s the threat?

By exploiting the Dirty Stream flaw, an attacker could trick a vulnerable app into overwriting critical files within its private storage space. Such an attack scenario could result in the attacker seizing total control over the app’s behavior, gaining unauthorized access to sensitive user data, or intercepting private login information.

Microsoft’s investigation revealed that this vulnerability is not an isolated issue, as the research found incorrect implementations of the content provider system prevalent across many popular Android apps. Two notable examples are Xiaomi’s File Manager application, which has over one billion installations, and WPS Office, which boasts about 500 million installs.

Microsoft researcher Dimitrios Valsamaras emphasized the staggering number of devices at risk, stating, “We identified several vulnerable applications in the Google Play Store that represented over four billion installations.”

Microsoft has proactively shared its discoveries, alerting developers of potentially vulnerable apps and collaborating with them to deploy fixes. Both companies mentioned above have promptly acknowledged the identified issues in their software.

Furthermore, Google has taken steps to prevent similar vulnerabilities in the future by updating its app security guidelines, now placing additional emphasis on exploitable common content provider design flaws.

What can Android users do?

While developers scramble to find and patch vulnerable apps, Android users can take some simple precautions. Staying vigilant with app updates is crucial, as developers will likely be issuing fixes rapidly.

Additionally, it’s advisable to always download applications from the official Google Play Store and be highly cautious when downloading from unofficial sources, which are more likely to harbor malicious apps.

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