Google Wallet Stores Some Payment Card Data In Plain Text

'Significant' amount of unencrypted data leaves Android phones at risk, researchers say

Google's much-anticipated mobile payment application locally stores some sensitive user information unencrypted, such as a cardholder's name, transaction dates, email address, and account balance, new research released today reveals.

Researchers from viaForensics tested the security of Google Wallet -- which lets consumers transact credit-card charges, redeem gift cards, and use loyalty membership cards in stores from their phones -- on rooted Android smartphones and found that the app leaves sensitive data in the clear. While Google Wallet hides the full credit-card account number, the last four digits reside in plain text in the app's local SQLite database.

The good news is that viaForensics confirmed that the app does repel man-in-the-middle attacks, and is protected by a PIN to conduct transactions with the cards.

But the apps' SQLite databases resident on the Android phones included credit-card balance, limit, expiration date, cardholder name, and transaction locations and dates -- information that viaForensics says could be used, for example, as a way to social-engineer the actual credit-card account from the cardholder.

[ A debate is whirling around the hype of mobile malware and the solutions we have to fight it. See "Rethinking Mobile Security." ]

"They underestimated the value of data that consumers are not comfortable with [being exposed]," says Andrew Hoog, chief investigative officer for viaForensics. "I'm not comfortable with someone knowing my credit limit or when my payments are due ... If you had that type of information, you could effectively do a social-engineering attack that could get [an attacker] access to an account."

Meanwhile, a Google spokesperson points out that the viaForensics report is based on research conducted on a rooted Android smartphone. The report also applauds the layered security built into the OS and app, the spokesperson says. "The viaForensics study does not refute the effectiveness of the multiple layers of security built into the Android OS and Google Wallet," the spokesperson says. "But even in this case, the secure element still protects the payment instructions, including credit card and CVV numbers.

"Android actively protects against malicious programs that attempt to gain root access without the user's knowledge."

But Andrew Hoog, chief investigative officer for viaForensics, says dismissing security weaknesses in Wallet just because they were discovered on rooted phones is moot. Some 10 to 15 percent of smartphone users "root" their devices, he says, and his firm had to root the phones in their research in order to access data under the app data directory, he says. Plus there's plenty of malware that roots phones remotely, he says.

"If you think about the number of folks who have root and the fact that on every single major iOS and Android released people have been successful at getting root quickly, and that there are remote exploits capable of doing this remotely over a network ... we feel that these threats" of exposed data are relevant, he says.

The bottom line is Google needs to either encrypt all of the sensitive cardholder data or not store it locally, he says.

"We give Google credit for putting a PIN on the app," Hoog says. "But if you have to store [sensitive] data, don't store it plain text."

Meanwhile, Google did fix a couple of other flaws viaForensics had pointed out: where data was still recoverable after a transaction was deleted or Google Wallet was reset, and a feature where a recoverable image of a credit card showed name, expiration date, and last four digits of the account. Both of these issues were fixed in Version 1.0-R33v6 of Wallet.

"With the amount of data that can be pulled off and the fact that this is a payment app, Google has to be held to a higher level" of security with Wallet, he says.

ViaForensics posted its full analysis of Google Wallet's security issues here.

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About the Author(s)

Kelly Jackson Higgins, Editor-in-Chief, Dark Reading

Kelly Jackson Higgins is the Editor-in-Chief of Dark Reading. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise Magazine, Virginia Business magazine, and other major media properties. Jackson Higgins was recently selected as one of the Top 10 Cybersecurity Journalists in the US, and named as one of Folio's 2019 Top Women in Media. She began her career as a sports writer in the Washington, DC metropolitan area, and earned her BA at William & Mary. Follow her on Twitter @kjhiggins.

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