Abandoned Apps May Pose Security Risk to Mobile Devices

Mobile providers don't often update users when applications are not supported by developers, security firm says.



Software libraries that are no longer being actively developed are a huge problem for programmers and a source of vulnerabilities, but are such "abandoned" codebases also an issue for users?

In a report published today, mobile security firm Wandera argued that many mobile users have applications installed on their smartphones and tablets that are no longer in active development nor offered on major app stores. The company discovered a "significant number" of such applications on employee's devices during its regular scanning for security threats, says Michael Covington, vice president at the firm. 

These applications pose security risks because any vulnerability found in the code will never be patched, he says. 

"These abandoned applications are on worker devices: they are outdated, and they are not maintained," Covington says. "When the developer stops updating, then vulnerabilities go unpatched, and that is a security issue."

Productivity applications are the most common as measured by the number of devices that still have an abandoned app installed, according to the Wandera report. The original Samsung Keyboard software, which came installed by default on some of the manufacturer's devices, is the top application found on smartphones, with 40 times more installs than the next most common, the Flashlight app. 

Moreover, the Samsung Keyboard application has a known vulnerability, the firm stated in the analysis.  

"The Samsung [Keyboard] app is one where we are aware of published vulnerabilities," Covington says. "With these apps residing on user phones, we restrict ourselves to looking at certain bits of metadata, so we can't always tell much about the version that is installed."

The Flashlight app is present on nearly 1.2% of all devices managed by Wandera's software and poses a risk since the application is no longer under development. The statistic suggests that the Samsung Keyboard is present on nearly half of all devices, Covington confirmed, noting "upon investigation, it appears that the impact is so high because of several very large accounts that have Android devices."

Abandoned applications and codebases are a common problem in the industry. Developers, for example, often don't pay attention to whether the open source components they include in applications are under development. The result: 91% of applications include an open source component that is considered abandoned — the code has either not been developed in the past two years, or is more than four years out of date.

"All software ages. As it ages, it loses support," Synopsys stated in its 2020 Open Source Security and Risk Analysis report. "With open source, the number of developers working to ensure updates — including feature improvements, as well as security and stability updates — decreases over time." 

Apple has taken steps to keep code current on its Mac platform. The company has been warning for over a year when applications are not compatible with the latest version of its operating system. Notices, such as "The developer of this app needs to update it to work with this version of macOS," are common following an operating system update.

However, mobile devices do not have the same feature, even though they do a better job at downloading the most recent version of an application, Covington says.

"Apple... ran a pretty aggressive campaign, [but] they don't want users to feel that there has been something removed from their device," he says. "We do wish that Apple and Google would do more here to make sure that devices are checked to see if they are up to the latest version."

The companies could, for example, alert users on a regular basis to applications that are no longer available on the app store, Covington says. 

Apple does allow users to set the device to "Offload Unused Apps" in the settings, which can help reduce the danger of abandoned applications. 

For now, users should occasionally check their mobile devices for old apps they no longer use and remove them, Covington says.

"This is further evidence that people just don't tidy up their app downloads," he says. "With the average mobile devices having approximately 200 apps installed, it's no surprise how something like this can get lost in the noise and stay installed long after its utility has passed."

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Veteran technology journalist of more than 20 years. Former research engineer. Written for more than two dozen publications, including CNET News.com, Dark Reading, MIT's Technology Review, Popular Science, and Wired News. Five awards for journalism, including Best Deadline ... View Full Bio
 

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