Stagefright: The Ultimate Android Nemesis?


In what could come across as a devastating piece of news to almost 99% of Android-operated mobile phone users, a new stealth virus named “Android Stagefright” has arrived at the scene and is all poised to infect around 950 million Android users, as per early reports. The virus, according to experts, can be used to access the phone’s internal data, data stored in external memory units, and to also control the phone remotely.

This situation may remind people of “Heartbleed”, another deadly virus to have hit the PC-platforms in early 2014 that posed serious threat to the security of the servers.

virus phone

What is it?

The virus derives its name from a critical flaw detected in a core Android component called “Stagefright,” a native media playback library that is used to perform tasks like processing, recording and playing multimedia files. As per two separate reports releases by Forbes and ABC News, Android Stagefright virus needs the user to only open a message with an infected picture in it. Once the recipient of the message opens the picture message, it activates the malware and exposes the machine to vulnerability.

As if the very mention of a lethal virus-attack wasn’t unnerving enough for those virtually glued to their smartphones, the real threat lies with the fact that the virus not only causes massive infection of devices with just a simple text message, but also continues to hack files without the user ever knowing anything about it.

What does it do?

Once it has hacked the files it targeted, it can also wipe out all the traces of any hacking or virus attack ever having taken place. Once the infected picture is opened, the user can never know that his data has been compromised.

And the vulnerability could extend beyond gaining access to private data such as pictures, messages, files on the external memory and the phone’s Bluetooth to hijacking the phone’s camera and microphone. In fact, an IT expert has recently admitted and confirmed that all almost all devices in the industry are vulnerable; there is no such thing as safe. The platform most prone to an attack from Stagefright is Google’s messenger Hangout.

One of the biggest concerns is that Stagefright is practically undetectable to the end-users

One of the biggest concerns is that Stagefright is practically undetectable to the end-users

How to prevent it?

Help options are limited- the only users who might consider themselves safe are the ones who are using Android 2.2, an obsolete version that is almost off the shelves now. Google Play provides certain antiviruses at no cost to the users that might provide temporary relief.

Very few details have been made public till now because no-one wants panic and fear to spread out. Many people start circulating articles with unsubstantiated claims in them, which causes further confusion and scare among people. Another reason is that no hackers have been detected using this virus to exploit this very critical flaw to be discovered in the Android build.

Is there any cure?

In a situation like this, the only major steps one can take to tackle this virus is to not give their phone number out publicly and avoid opening messages from shady senders.

Joshua Drake, Vice-president of Zimperium zLabs, was the first one to detect this virus in April but chose to not declare the discovery openly, in order to give Google enough time to fix the problem and send patches out to its partners. Although Google claims that it acted promptly and has already sent patches within 48 hours of the virus report, troubles are far from over for the end-users owing to Android’s traditionally slow-pace at providing updates.

Smartphone

According to Nikolaos Chrysaidos, Mobile Malware Analyst for Avast, this is another reason why people shouldn’t share their phone numbers on social media or the internet. Sharing personal contact details only invites strangers to send you malicious content via pictures and messages. In his opinion, the immediate step to prevent your phone being hacked is to disable the “auto-retrieve MMS” option within Google Hangout settings. In addition to that, steps like disabling features such as “download media attachments automatically in WiFi” must be taken immediately as a precautionary measure.

There is an air of uncertainty on how to deal with any potential attack due to this virus. On one hand, many say , that such attacks are not practically possible because the hackers would need millions of mobile numbers and millions of dollars in their bank balance to be able to send bulk messages. However, recent studies have reported that Stagefright can use methods like triggering Exploit from android application or craft HTML exploit to target visitors of a webpage too. In other words, it soon might not depend on mobile numbers exclusively to infect the mobile phones.

What are we doing about it?

Although updates for Android devices have historically taken a long time to reach the end-users, this time manufacturers seemingly are responding quicker. HTC told Time that Google had informed HTC of the issue and provided the necessary patches and fixes, which HTC began implementing into all its projects rolling forward early July. All projects going forward contain the required fix. However, much work needs to be done much quicker to avert large scale damages. Comprehensive fixes need to be provided by the phone’s manufacturer in an over-the-air (OTA) firmware update for android versions 2.2 and on

Keeping the security of Android users as an utmost priority, Blackphone tweeted that protecting the personal details of their customers is extremely important to them so they have responded quickly and provided patches to their partners, who can then use it in their devices.

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