8/20/2014
02:20 PM
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US, German Researchers Build Android Security Framework

The Android Security Modules (ASM) framework aims to streamline and spread security features, updates to Android devices.



Security researchers from the US and Germany have developed a framework for Android that would allow companies and users to more easily plug in security tools and enhancements to the mobile devices.

The researchers, from NC State and Technische Universitat Darmstadt/CASED in Germany, basically modified the core Android operating system such that developers and users could more easily add new security features to Android devices. The so-called Android Security Modules (ASM) Framework is a way to more comprehensively and easily update the oft-targeted mobile platform with new defenses from attacks and privacy threats.

Android's popularity has been its detriment when it comes to security: The pervasive and open-source OS comes in multiple flavors and iterations on various smartphone and tablet platforms, depending on the vendor, model, and wireless provider. Patching and updating firmware has been haphazard in many cases, and enterprises faced with BYOD pressures have struggled to efficiently and sufficiently lock down the devices for their employees.

But the researchers say that if Google were to implement ASM, which provides a sort of application programming interface framework, Android devices could more easily and widely get augmented with security enhancements and exploit protections.

"This enables the sorts of privacy and security enhancements for Android to actually see the light of day," says Dr. William Enck, an assistant professor of computer science at NC State and co-author of "ASM:  A Programmable Interface for Extending Android Security," which he and the other authors will present on Friday at the Usenix Security Symposium in San Diego.

Enck says the framework makes Android devices more attractive for businesses. "The real power of ASM is being a generic, extensible way to enhancing security on smartphones," he says. "I think there's a strong need for this… framework as Android becomes more and more pervasive."

He and his fellow researchers on the project, Adwait Nadkarni, a PhD student at NC State and  Stephan Heuser, a Ph.D. student at TU Darmstadt/CASED; and Dr. Ahmad-Reza Sadeghi, of TU Darmstadt/CASED, have reached out to Google and Android device manufacturers about the new framework.

Google as of this posting had not yet responded to a press inquiry about the new research.

Tyler Shields of Forrester Research says the ASM framework makes sense as step toward making Android devices more secure. "It would allow others to expand on the project," Shields says.

But it's not a quick nor comprehensive fix, he warns. The Android ecosystem, from Google to the smartphone makers to the wireless carriers, would need to adopt it.  "It's super complex stuff and likely going to be quite some time before Google considers something so large. This would be a major underlying change in architecture and would be quite a big undertaking to get the food chain of vendors -- Google, hardware vendor, carrier -- to all implement and manage and use this properly."

So how would ASM work for an Android user? NC State's Enck says if an Android was outfitted with ASM and the device's OS was no longer updatable with the newest OS, a security module could be developed for this older device to mitigate a specific exploit threat, for example, depending on the vulnerability. "It really depends on the vulnerability," he says.

ASM does not cover threats to the Linux kernel, however, he says.

"My goal is to see the ASM framework adopted into the Android open source project. That way, it would [be available] to the widest number of phones. And I would hope the large smartphone vendors would be adopting it," he says.

"Android is a platform with many different customers," and the hope is to offer widespread availability of security improvements to it via ASM, he says.

[Black Hat speaker details how security researchers can expedite their work across numerous Android devices at once. Read Tapping Into A Homemade Android Army.]

The researchers are offering the ASM framework source code for free, non-commercial use. Their research paper with the full technical details is available here.

Kelly Jackson Higgins is the Executive Editor 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 ... View Full Bio

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