NFC beaming of applications between devices using Android OS bypasses some security controls (the “install unknown application” prompt). A rogue device like a payment terminal can use this vulnerability to infect devices with malware.
Affected versions of Android are version 8 (Oreo) and higher. The vendor assigned CVE-2019-2114 to track this issue and released a fix in the October 2019 security bulletin. Users are encouraged to update their devices to mitigate this vulnerability.
Android is an open source operating system developed by Google for mobile phones and tablets. It is estimated that over two billion devices exist worldwide running Android. Most Android devices are restricted in which applications can be installed by users – in particular, they must originate from the Google Play Store. Prior to version 8 (Oreo) a system-wide setting existed in the OS which allowed users to override this control and grant them ability to install applications from any source (“Settings” -> “Security”). In Android 8 (Oreo) this has been changed, and users must grant permission to each application that is trying to perform such install as opposed to a system-wide setting. See example:
Some Android devices support NFC (Near Field Communication) – set of protocols that allow devices to communicate within a very short distance. This is used for applications like contactless payments, pairing of devices and access control. Android devices also support NFC for transferring data between two devices including contracts, photos and applications via a feature called Android Beam.
In Android 8 (Oreo) a new feature was introduced that requires users to opt-in to the “Install unknown apps” permission on a app by app basis. However, it appears that any system application that is signed by Google will be automatically whitelisted and would not prompt the user for this permission. On a standard Android OS device, the NFC service is one such system application that has the permission to install other applications. This means, that an Android phone that has NFC and Android Beam enabled, then touching a malicious phone or a malicious NFC payment terminal to the device may allow malware to be installed by bypassing the “install unknown apps” prompt.
To see these permissions, use any Android phone with NFC and running v8 or higher, go to “Settings”, search for “Install unknown apps” to find the permission. Tap through to view apps, and make sure to select “Show system” in the dropdown menu. You will see that the “NFC Service” is listed as being allowed to install applications by default (since it is a system application). See example:
Steps to Replicate
To actually replicate a malicious drive-by install, do the following:
- Setup two phones with NFC and Android beam enabled.
- Download any APK file on the “sender” phone (something like
this APK from GitHub).
- Go to the file manager in the “sender” phone, tap the file and select “Share”. Then select “Android Beam” as the sharing method,
- Bring two phones together and complete the transfer.
- After this is done, go to the receiver phone, tap the “Beam completed” notification, and tap the file. It will skip directly to the install prompt, bypassing the “Install unknown apps” check.
Tested on Android 9 and Android 8.10.
Vendor Response and Mitigation
The vendor (Google) classified this issue as High and assigned CVE-2019-2114 to track this issue. A fix was released in the October 2019 security bulletin. Users are encouraged to update their devices to mitigate this vulnerability. After applying the update, users are encouraged to check the “Install unknown apps” permission in settings to make sure the NFC Service is listed as “not allowed” to install applications.
This issue only affects Android version 8 (Oreo) or higher.
Android bulletin: October 2019 (2019-10-06)
CVE ID: CVE-2019-2114
Google Bug # 123651515 (Android ID # A-123700348)
Google Blog: Blog post about the changes in the “install unknown apps” permission
This issue satisfied the requirements of the Android Security Rewards Program and a bounty payment has been paid by the vendor.
This advisory was written by Y. Shafranovich.
2019-01-30: Initial report submitted to the vendor
2019-01-31: Vendor response received – issue under investigation
2019-02-01: Issue rated as High by the vendor
2019-03-02: Checking bug status, vendor communication
2019-04-06: Checking bug status, vendor communication
2019-04-29: Checking bug status, fix is still being worked on
2019-06-29: Checking bug status, vendor communication
2019-07-01: Vendor indicating that a patch is forthcoming, CVE assigned
2019-07-08: Notified vendor about upcoming talk
2019-07-10: Vendor informing that the fix has been delayed by a month
2019-07-28: Draft blog post sent to the vendor for review
2019-07-31: Blog post comments received from the vendor
2019-09-04: Follow-up communication with the vendor
2019-10-07: Fix released
2019-10-24: Public disclosure