Home > Mobile Phones > Android needs a chastity belt

Android needs a chastity belt

After spending three hours yesterday watching the Google I/O 2010 keynote addresses, I was pretty upbeat about Google and Android. I was really impressed with the innovation and the execution of ideas.  Unfortunately, all of that was overshadowed when I learned about the latest Android spyware discovery presented at Black Hat. Story here.

From a development standpoint, Android’s open platform is a good thing. It allows developers to do some amazing things with the technology and bring some very impressive applications into the mobile marketplace. But as many of us know, it’s also an open invitation for hackers to “have their way” with the phone and the user community’s information.

As Infosanity pointed out in his post about the C.I.A triangle, there needs to be a balance between functionality, ease of use and security, but this latest disclosure about Android insecurity is totally unacceptable.  But this is nothing compared to what a true criminal mastermind can do with the Android. The possibilities are mind boggling.

Let’s say a hacker installs a spyware application to leverage the GPS capabilities of the phone to track where you live (evening hours), where you work or go to school (day hours) and where you are on the weekends. A hacker can pass this information onto a group that burglarizes homes and before you know it, all your valuables are stolen.  Or let’s say someone stalks you, your child or wife with this capability. Photos and text messages can also reveal a lot of information about a person’s life and habits.  If you don’t think it’s possible, then you really don’t understand the technology or the criminal mind.  A region specific application would be perfect to disguise such nefarious data collection activities. Even an unattended phone can fall victim to a manual spyware install.

Google and the Open Handset Alliance really need to rethink the permissions security model, how application permissions requests are presented to the user, what information should be accessible to applications and perhaps incorporate an audit log option to allow users to review what information applications are accessing and transmitting.

It is painfully obvious that the current process and mechanisms for identifying malicious applications (and perhaps subsequent upgrades) are inadequate.  Something need to be done about the situation – and soon.

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  1. afairchild
    July 30, 2010 at 6:05 am

    Thanks for your comment on my blog. We do need a trusted source and some sort of anti-malware for Android phones. http://constantia.wordpress.com/2010/07/29/mobile-apps-choice-vs-exploitation/

    • July 30, 2010 at 11:56 pm

      You’re right about needing a trusted source. Unfortunately, based on the number of apps that are added and updated every day, code review doesn’t scale. Just monitoring the binaries isn’t enough, because there is always the possibility of sleepers.

      At this point, I don’t see how anti-malware can be effective, as there is no way for the malware to determine what is and isn’t legit communications, especially if it’s encrypted. Once permission to access the data is granted, it’s too late.

      We need lots of brain power to solve this problem – and a lot of it is right under Google’s roof!

  2. Charles Liu
    August 3, 2010 at 9:45 pm

    This story is bogus:

    http://www.androidtapp.com/android-wallpaper-apps-falsely-accused-of-spyware-and-stealing-sensitive-user-data-fud

    Android Tapp actually asked the app developer and found out phone info is collected for customization feature users asked for.

    • August 4, 2010 at 2:41 am

      Thank you for sharing this follow-up story. Several writers lined out the incorrectly reported information after it was brought to their attention the following day. Lookout posted a response here.

      In the Android Tapp article, he does state the following:

      I also collected device id,phone number and subscriber id, it has no relationship with user data. There are few apps in Android market has the favorites feature. Many users suggest that I should provide the feature so I use the these to identify the device, so they can favorite the wallpapers more conveniently, and resume his favorites after system resetting or changing the phone.

      While I understand what he is saying, I strongly disagree with the method – user data or not.

  1. August 14, 2010 at 6:44 pm

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