That warning comes by way of Xuxian Jiang, an assistant professor of computer science at North Carolina State University (N.C. State), who led a research team at the university that found a weakness in Android 4.0.4 (Ice Cream Sandwich) and prior versions. Jiang then built a proof-of-concept rootkit to exploit the vulnerability, which exists not in the operating system kernel, but within the Android framework on which the kernel runs.
"The rootkit could be downloaded with an infected app, and once established, could manipulate the smartphone," according to details released by N.C. State.
"For example, the rootkit could hide the smartphone's browser and replace it with a browser that looks and acts exactly the same--but steals all of the information you enter, such as banking or credit card data," it said. "But the rootkit's functionality is not limited to replacing the browser--it could be used to hide and replace any or all of the apps on a smartphone."
"This would be a more sophisticated type of attack than we've seen before, specifically tailored to smartphone platforms. The rootkit was not that difficult to develop, and no existing mobile security software is able to detect it," said Jiang in a statement. "But there is good news. Now that we've identified the problem, we can begin working on ways to protect against attacks like these."
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Google didn't immediately respond to an emailed request for its comment on Jiang's proof-of-concept rootkit research, such as the practicality of such an attack, or how soon it might patch the underlying--and as yet publicly unspecified--vulnerability. Given that the Android framework includes Java-compatible libraries based on Apache Harmony, it's possible the underlying vulnerability has to do with Android's Java implementation.
This is far from Jiang's first foray into Android malware territory. His previous research has detailed the GingerMaster and RootSmart Android rootkits, as well as how add-on Android software and skins, included by some device makers in their distributions of the operating system, can make those versions of Android more susceptible to being attacked and exploited.
Jiang is also the driving force behind the Android Malware Genome Project, announced in May. The project aims to share Android malware samples with the security community, to help security experts better understand how malware attacks unfold and evolve and design better defenses. To date, 1,200 Android malware samples have been collected by N.C. State, and the project has shared data with 129 universities, research labs, and companies, including Google, the National University of Singapore, Purdue University, Symantec, and Tsinghua University in China.