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China's ZTE Ships Smartphone with Backdoor to MetroPCS (Updated)

Backdoor Found In ZTE Android Smartphone

ZTE, a handset manufacturer in China, has shipped Android smartphones to the U.S. with a fully enabled backdoor. The news of the backdoor came by way of an anonymous post to Pastebin, but was later confirmed by other researchers.

[Updated 05/17 to Add ZTE Working On Patch for Backdoor Vulnerability]

ZTE partnered with wireless carrier MetroPCS in March in order to release an affordable, entry-level Android device to the market. The ZTE Score M, running Android 2.3.4 (Gingerbread), ships with 4GB of internal memory, a 600 MHz processor, 3.5-inch display, and an application called sync_agent.

“There is a setuid-root application at /system/bin/sync_agent that serves no function besides providing a root shell backdoor on the device. Just give the magic, hard-coded password to get a root shell,” an anonymous post on Pastebin explained over the weekend.

$ sync_agent ztex1609523

# id

uid=0(root) gid=0(root)

The ZTE Skate (sold by Orange in the U.K.) has also been confirmed to be impacted by the issue. When it was released, the Score M earned dismal reviews on CNET, so it is likely that only a small segment of the Android user base in the U.S. is impacted.

The ZTE Skate on the other hand had stronger reviews, so there are likely to be a good number of users in the U.K. walking around with a ready-to-root device without knowing it.

On Reddit, a user known as Shabbypenguin summed the situation up nicely for those starting to panic.

“At this time there is no evidence to even support that this can even remotely being activated, however this is a big security concern regardless. For all intents and purposes this could be a debugging tool left in, however just seems oddly convenient for multiple software versions on separate phones on separate carriers...,” they explained.

At this time, Shabbypenguin continued, the news surrounding the backdoor is mostly just to raise awareness, especially after all the problems that were caused by Carrier IQ. At the same time, “even if ZTE had done this on accident, there could be malware that targets it.”

We’ve reached out to ZTE and MetroPCS for comment.

Days after our initial request, ZTE provided the following statement to SecurityWeek.

"ZTE takes customer privacy very seriously and makes every effort to ensure personal data is safe from unauthorized access. In our investigation of a reported "backdoor" issue, we have identified a vulnerability that may expose affected devices to third-party exploitation."

"ZTE is actively working on a security patch and expect to send the update over-the-air to affected users in the very near future. ZTE is providing all relevant customer support possible in this isolated incident and we are deeply apologetic for any inconvenience this software issue may have caused. We strongly urge affected users to download and install the patch as soon as it is rolled out to their devices."

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Steve Ragan is a security reporter and contributor for SecurityWeek. Prior to joining the journalism world in 2005, he spent 15 years as a freelance IT contractor focused on endpoint security and security training.