Almost half of Android devices still have a vulnerable browser installed

The percentage is much higher in some countries and lower in the U.S, security firm Lookout estimates

Around 45 percent of Android devices have a browser that is vulnerable to two serious security issues, but some countries have a considerably larger percentage of affected users than others, according to data from mobile security firm Lookout.

The two security issues were discovered over the past month by a security researcher named Rafay Baloch and were described as a privacy disaster by other researchers. They allow an attacker to bypass a core security boundary, called the same-origin policy (SOP), that exists in all browsers.

The SOP prevents scripts from one domain from interacting with data from a different domain. For example, scripts running on a page hosted on domain A should not be able to interact with content loaded on the same page from domain B.

Without that restriction, attackers could create pages that load Facebook, Gmail or some other sensitive sites in an invisible iframe and then trick users into visiting those pages in order to hijack their sessions and read their emails or send Facebook messages, for example.

The SOP bypass vulnerabilities found by Baloch affect Android versions older than 4.4, which according to data from Google are installed on 75 percent of all Android devices that actively visit the Google Play Store. Android 4.4 is not vulnerable because it uses Google Chrome as the default browser instead of the older Android Open Source Project (AOSP) browser.

Google has released patches for the two vulnerabilities through AOSP, which serves as the base for the customized Android firmware installed on devices by manufacturers. The task now falls on device vendors to import those patches and release firmware updates to end users.

However, history has shown that the availability of Android firmware updates varies greatly among manufacturers, different devices from the same manufacturer and even among countries, as local carriers also play a role in the distribution of over-the-air updates.

This is reflected in data about these two vulnerabilities that was collected by Lookout from users of its mobile security products. Overall, "around 45% of Lookout users have a vulnerable version of the AOSP browser installed," Lookout employees Jeremy Linden and Meghan Kelly said in a blog post. "We believe our userbase offers a good look at how Android users overall are being affected by vulnerabilities such as this one."

However, a further breakdown of vulnerable device statistics per country paint a different picture. Eighty-one percent of Lookout users in Japan have a vulnerable version of the AOSP browser installed, compared to only 34 percent of users in the U.S. In Spain 73 percent of users are potentially affected, while in the U.K. it's 51 percent.

These significant differences are probably due to the lower average age of phones in the U.S. and a lower frequency for updates in some countries, Linden and Kelly said.

While Lookout's data reflects how fragmented the Android ecosystem is, especially when it comes to security patches, it's worth noting that in this case simply having a vulnerable version of the AOSP browser installed doesn't implicitly mean that a phone user is at risk. Android users can install and use Chrome, Firefox or some other non-vulnerable browsers instead of the pre-installed AOSP browser.

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