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Friday, 19 June 2020 20:03

Researchers outline flaws in COVIDSafe app, urge users to upgrade Featured

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Researchers outline flaws in COVIDSafe app, urge users to upgrade Image by Miroslava Chrienova from Pixabay

A number of researchers have detailed four major vulnerabilities in the Australian Government's COVIDSafe application for the iPhone and Android systems, and advised users to upgrade at once.

The main patches issued were to fix:

  • A bug in the way COVIDSafe reads Bluetooth messages on iPhones. This meant that the new, longer, encrypted messages were sometimes garbled and thus some iPhone-to-iPhone contacts would not be recorded. However it was possible for the same phones to connect again in a different way that did record properly.
  • A patch for CVE-2020-14292, a vulnerability allowing for long-term tracking of Android devices.
  • COVIDSafe on iPhones can now download a new TempID when the phone is locked.
  • Encryption was implemented in a manner that did not prevent interference between multiple threads. This sometimes crashed the app, and could possibly lead to garbled encryptions or leaked information.

The researchers who detailed these bugs on GitHub were Chris Culnane of State of IT, Ben Frengley, Eleanor McMurtry, Jim Mussared, Yaakov Smith, Vanessa Teague of Thinking Cybersecurity, and Alwen Tiu of the Australian National University.

The advisory pointed out that the Bluetooth messages sent by COVIDSafe v2 were much longer than those of the previous version and a bug that was already present garbled some transactions between iPhones. This flaw was found by John Evershed of Project Computing.

A second flaw, tracked as CVE-2020-12856, affected the Android versions of COVIDSafe from v1.0.17 and earlier. This allowed an attacker to bond silently with an Android phone running a vulnerable version of the app.

A third flaw, similar to CVE-2020-12856, affected versions of the COVIDSafe app from 1.0.21 and earlier. This allowed an attacker to obtain the Bluetooth identity address and also to perform silent bonding in some cases.

The fourth problem was that locked iPhones could not receive new TempIDs for COVIDSafe, a flaw found by Richard Nelson. This was fixed in COVIDSafe versions 1.6 onwards.

Finally, the researchers wrote that a critical concurrency flaw had been found in encryption code version 1.0.18 used in COVIDSafe; a single Cipher instance was shared across different threads without being synchronised. This affected Android versions 1.0.18 to 1.0.27.

This bug was notified to the Digital Transformation Agency and the Australian Signals Directorate earlier this month.

The researchers thanked the DTA and ASD for patching the encryption issue.

"[We'd] encourage the DTA to address the Bluetooth tracking problem and the iPhone logging failure urgently," they wrote. "We'd also like to thank the large and active community of Australian techies who have examined, discussed, and tried to correct the code."


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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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