The StrandHogg vulnerability

Promon security researchers have found proof of a dangerous Android vulnerability, dubbed ‘StrandHogg’, that allows real-life malware to pose as legitimate apps, with users unaware they are being targeted.

What’s the impact?
All versions of Android affected, incl. Android 10*
All top 500 most popular apps are at risk*
Real-life malware is exploiting the vulnerability
36 malicious apps exploiting the vulnerability was identified*
The vulnerability can be exploited without root access
When exploited by hackers
They can listen to the user through the microphone
Take photos through the camera
Read and send SMS messages
Make and/or record phone conversations
Phish login credentials
Get access to all private photos and files on the device
Get location and GPS information
Get access to the contacts list
Access phone logs
*Lookout, a partner of Promon, confirmed that they have identified 36 malicious apps exploiting the vulnerability. Among them were variants of the BankBot banking trojan observed as early as 2017. *During testing, Promon researchers found that all of the 500 most popular apps (as ranked by app intelligence company 42 Matters) are vulnerable to StrandHogg. *All versions of Android affected, incl. Android 10* (note: the permission harvesting exploit is only from Android 6.0 and onwards).

BankBot: one of the most widespread banking trojans around, with dozens of variants and close relatives springing up all the time. BankBot attacks have been detected all over the world, in the U.S., Latin America, Europe and the Asia Pacific region.

StrandHogg Permission Harvesting
How can hackers access all this?
Through dangerous permission harvesting
The vulnerability makes it possible for a malicious app to ask for permissions while pretending to be the legitimate app. An attacker can ask for access to any permission, including SMS, photos, microphone, and GPS, allowing them to read messages, view photos, eavesdrop, and track the victim’s movements.

The attack can be designed to request permissions which would be natural for different targeted apps to request, in turn lowering suspicion from victims. Users are unaware that they are giving permission to the hacker and not the authentic app they believe they are using.

...and powerful phishing attacks
By exploiting this vulnerability, a malicious app installed on the device can attack the device and trick it so that when the app icon of a legitimate app is clicked, a malicious version is instead displayed on the user’s screen.

When the victim inputs their login credentials within this interface, sensitive details are immediately sent to the attacker, who can then login to, and control, security-sensitive apps.

Would you notice it if you were hacked this way?

The vulnerability explained
StrandHogg, unique because it enables sophisticated attacks without the need for a device to be rooted, uses a weakness in the multitasking system of Android to enact powerful attacks that allows malicious apps to masquerade as any other app on the device. This exploit is based on an Android control setting called ‘taskAffinity’ which allows any app – including malicious ones – to freely assume any identity in the multitasking system they desire.

Promon has conducted research of real-life malware that exploits this serious flaw and found all of the top 500 most popular apps (as ranked by app intelligence company 42 Matters) are at risk, with all versions of Android affected.

The vulnerability has been named by Promon as ‘StrandHogg’, old Norse for the Viking tactic of raiding coastal areas to plunder and hold people for ransom.

Promon’s study significantly expands upon research carried out by Penn State University in 2015, where researchers theoretically described certain aspects of the vulnerability. Google, at the time, dismissed the vulnerability’s severity, but Promon has tangible evidence that hackers are exploiting StrandHogg in order to gain access to devices and apps.

Malicious dropper apps frequently slip under Google's radar
The specific malware sample which Promon analyzed did not reside on Google Play but was installed through several dropper apps/hostile downloaders distributed on Google Play. These apps have now been removed, but in spite of Google’s Play Protect security suite, dropper apps continue to be published and frequently slip under the radar, with some being downloaded millions of times before being spotted and deleted.

Demonstrative of the scale of Google Play’s issue with dropper apps, researchers recently reported that the malicious CamScanner app, a PDF creator which contains a malicious module, has been downloaded more than 100 million times.