September 7, 2017 By Shane Schick 2 min read

Researchers at the University of California have discovered half a dozen mobile vulnerabilities in firmware used by several leading chipset manufacturers that could allow an attacker to execute arbitrary code and even permanently brick an Android smartphone.

Mobile Vulnerabilities Found in Boot-Up Sequences

In a scholarly paper titled “BootStomp: On the Security of Bootloaders in Mobile Devices,” the USENIX computer scientists said the flaws are associated with the phones’ bootloaders, which validate each stage of the boot-up sequence known as a chain of trust (CoT). Cybercriminals who take advantage of them could gain access to code and perform a range of malicious activities, according to the report. Qualcomm, NVIDIA, MediaTek and Huawei all use chipsets that contain the six flaws.

On the plus side, would-be attackers would need to already have root access on an Android phone to make use of the mobile vulnerabilities, Threatpost reported. However, if anyone obtained such privileges, the bootloader issues mean they could break into areas of a device previously deemed impregnable. This includes TrustZone, the area that helps encrypt data on a smartphone and is separated from the CPU and OS.

Bootloaders as a Valid Threat

Depending on how bootloaders are designed within the chipset, some of the mobile vulnerabilities could pose a greater or lesser risk. For instance, Huawei’s implementation could make it almost impossible to know when an attacker has broken the CoT, according to ZDNet.

Normally, bootloaders don’t get a lot of attention in security circles due to the lack of available metadata and the closed-source nature of their design, Bleeping Computer pointed out. But in this case, the researchers created their own application, dubbed “BootStomp,” that analyzed the code in order to discover the mobile vulnerabilities.

However, Naked Security said there probably isn’t any reason to panic over the mobile vulnerabilities. For one thing, the chipset vendors in question have already been notified, and patches are already available.

Of course, malware authors could study these exploits to create more powerful and sophisticated attacks, but that would take time and resources beyond the average threat actor. For the most part, the research just offers further proof that even the areas that sometimes seem off-limits to attackers can have unexpected holes.

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