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'App Genome Project' Exposes Potential Smartphone Risks

Researchers from Lookout will present their findings thus far in study of freebie Android, iPhone apps

Android smartphone applications typically don't have as much access to private information, such as location and contact lists, as many iPhone apps do, but they're more likely to contain potentially dangerous third-party code, according to a sneak peek at new research that will be revealed at Black Hat USA this week.

Click here for more of Dark Reading's Black Hat articles.
Researchers from Lookout, a smartphone security company, are releasing new data from their so-called "App Genome Project," which scans and maps smartphone apps to pinpoint threats and privacy risks. The project has mapped the behavior of 100,000 smartphone apps and has scanned about 300,000 so far. Among the preliminary findings: Thirty-three percent of free iPhone apps have the ability to see the smartphone user's physical location, while 29 percent of free Android apps can do the same. And 14 percent of free iPhone apps can access a user's contact list, while 8 percent of free Android apps can do so.

One Android wallpaper app sends the user's phone number to the developer, for example.

Meanwhile, close to half of Android apps (47 percent) come with third-party code -- mainly for advertising or analytics purposes -- that can access sensitive smartphone data, exposing other security and privacy risks, according to the App Genome Project. About 23 percent of freebie iPhone apps have the same problem, the researchers say.

But the researchers say their data doesn't conclude that one smartphone is more secure than the other. "Each platform has different security measures that we believe will drive how and where the risks in each platform develop," says Kevin Mahaffey, co-founder and CTO at Lookout.

The smartphone project focuses on free apps found in the Android Market and the iPhone App Store. Lookout reported last month more than twice the number of malware and spyware programs were hitting BlackBerry, Windows Mobile, and Android phones versus six months ago.

Lookout says the iPhone's permission model makes it easier for third-party code to shape the app's features. For an Android app to interact with the user's address book, it would need to implement both the third-party code and request permission from the operating system to get to the contacts, the researchers say.

"The major differences are Android's use of a permission-based model and a community-enforced marketplace versus Apple's less-granular permission model and curated marketplace," Mahaffey says. "Specifically, Android gives users insight into the data accessed by applications they download so they can make security and privacy decisions. Apple, on the other hand, reviews the appropriateness of data access by applications when they are submitted to the App Store: For example, applications are not to access location if they only do so for advertising purposes."

Some recommendations for Smartphone users from Lookout:

1. Only download applications from trusted sources. Check out the number of downloads and recommendations for the app. Run a security app on your phone for checking downloads.

2. Download updates for apps regularly, especially banking and payment apps

3. Be careful when logging into apps that access sensitive data.

Have a comment on this story? Please click "Discuss" below. If you'd like to contact Dark Reading's editors directly, send us a message.

Kelly Jackson Higgins is Executive Editor at DarkReading.com. 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 ... View Full Bio

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