The security of Android apps was called into question by a report issued on Tuesday by SMobile Systems, an Ohio-based mobile security company.
The survey of over 48,000 apps in the Android Market notes that "one in every five applications request permissions to access private or sensitive information that an attacker could use for malicious purposes."
It further states that one in twenty Android apps have the potential to place unauthorized calls. "One out of every twenty applications has the ability to place a call to any number without interaction or authority from the user," the report says.
Google says the report has problems. "This report falsely suggests that Android users don't have control over which apps access their data," a company spokesperson said in an e-mailed statement. "Not only must each Android app gets users' permission to access sensitive information, but developers must also go through billing background checks to confirm their real identities, and we will disable any apps that are found to be malicious."
By highlighting the theoretical risk of Android apps, SMobile Systems runs the risk of being seen rainmaking -- trying to generate security business through fear -- rather than informing the community.
Consider the following statement from the report: "More frighteningly, 29 applications were found to request the exact same permissions as applications that are known to be spyware and have been categorized and detected as such by SMobile's solution."
The report says nothing about whether those applications are actually spyware. Nor does it address the fact that Google users are prompted to review the permissions of the apps they download and can flag problems for review by security experts.
John Hering, CEO of smartphone security company Lookout, said in a phone interview that there are problems with raising the alarm about the use of certain APIs. "Just because an app accesses an API does not mean that it's malicious," he said.
It's fair to say that the iPhone app review process presents an opportunity for risk mitigation that Google's Android Market doesn't have. Apple spends a small amount of time vetting every iOS app submitted while Google relies on its user community to flag bad apples, so to speak.
But there's more to phone security than app security, as AT&T's recent iPad security breach suggests. Android's application sandboxing and permissions system should also be considered.
Last August, when the Android Market had eight times fewer apps, Google told the FCC that approximately 1% of apps uploaded to the Android Market subsequently had to be removed.
Hering says that his company sees different threats on different platforms.
While noting that there are more application-related attacks on the Android platform, he observed that iOS 4 patched some 60 vulnerabilities.
With regard to mobile security, "the sky is not falling," he said. "But we are seeing more and more threats. Security in the mobile space is absolutely a growing problem."
Six months ago, he said, his company was detecting four pieces of malware per 100 phones per year.
Today, that figure is about nine pieces of malware.
"The doubling of malware and spyware in the last six months is significant," he said.
The challenge going forward, he suggested, will be determining what is malware and what is not, because more and more apps will make use of APIs that interact with sensitive information.
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