Missing patches leave Android at risk from Qualcomm flaw

Security experts say poor update distribution is to blame

60 per cent of Android devices are at risk due a security flaw in Qualcomm's mobile chips, according to security experts at Duo Labs.

Researcher Gal Beniamini disclosed last week that a problem in Qualcomm's Secure Execution Environment (QSEE) could allow hackers to take control of a device through a series of linked exploits.

There are caveats that should limit the threat: the offensive code must be delivered via a malicious app, and the flaw itself was patched in a January 2016 security update.

However, Duo Labs revealed that a majority of Android users are vulnerable to having their devices compromised by this process because they haven't updated their handsets. 

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Duo Labs looked at data from 500,000 Android phones, of which 80 per cent use Qualcomm components, finding only a quarter have applied the relevant security patch.

This is due to the many problems surrounding patch distribution, the firm said. While Google's first-party Nexus devices receive patches as soon as they're released, updates for other phones have to go through multiple layers of approval first.

Once they're built by Google, they have to be applied by the individual OEM, then sent out to mobile providers, who then have to approve it and distribute it to their customers. The process that can take months.

And that's if devices are even eligible for the update in the first place. Duo Labs said that 27 per cent of Android phones are too old to qualify for such updates.

This means many phones are left out in the cold, unless the manufacturer creates a custom version of the patch or the user refreshes to a newer OS version - which many devices can't support.

To fall victim to hackers using the vulnerability, users would still have to install a malicious app. "Make sure you only install apps from well-known companies," Duo Labs advised. "It's not always easy, and definitely not fool-proof. But Facebook, for example, is a lot less likely to slip malicious code in its app, compared to lesser-known app developers that may try to make a quick buck by sneaking in malicious code."

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