Researcher calls out mobile providers for not pushing regular updates to many Android devices

KASPERSKY ANALYST SUMMIT -- San Juan, Puerto Rico -- Mobile security researchers may be hunting bugs in Android mobile device software, but it doesn't take a zero-day attack to compromise most of those devices today.

"You don't need an zero-day to attack most Android devices if consumers are running 13-month-old software," Chris Soghoian, a privacy researcher and activist, said today in a presentation here on the potential security crisis of outdated Android phones in use today.

Soghoian said mobile carriers are not properly protecting their customers because they don't support or enforce Android updates across the board on the smartphones. Some phones just don't get the latest Android OS version because they're being phased out or are older models.

"They are leaving users vulnerable to hacking when they could easily be protected. But they are not [protecting them]," he said. Recent data from DuoSecurity found that half of Android devices worldwide contain unpatched vulnerabilities.

"Half had unfixed, vulnerable code that had patches [from Google]," he said. "Google's team is fixing it very promptly, but the problem is fixes are not getting downstream."

He maintained that providers are basically prioritizing profit over the security of their customers' devices. "Carriers ultimately control software on the phone and can disable any feature they don't like, so they control updates to the phone, too," he said. Wireless providers increasingly are being transformed into "dumb" pipe providers as their voice call and text revenues decline, so they are under pressure to find other ways to make money, he said. Mobile credit card payment is one such new source of revenue, for instance.

Cesar Cerrudo, CTO at IO Active, said mobile's security problems do have much to do with economics. But it's also a reflection of the rapid-fire pace of mobile features and apps. "Most release stuff and don't care about security until later," Cerrudo said.

Unlike Apple, which retains control over its software and hardware in its carrier relationships, Google's open-source Android platform's updating and final version is up to the handset manufacturer and carrier. "[Android phone] manufacturers focus on the devices that are currently for sale and coming [to the market]," he said. "Old devices are not a priority for hardware companies. With wireless carriers, if you have a two-year contract, they only care about you once every two years."

He used an example of one LG Android smartphone that didn't get its first OS update for 16 months. Soghoian says this is a complex ecosystem where Android OS vendors focus their lean engineering resources on the most significant vulnerabilities and the next smartphone model to roll out. "Consumers are not getting the software updates they need," he said.

BlackBerry CERT director Adrian Stone, who gave an update on BlackBerry's security response operations here today, said while he understands the pressures on mobile carriers, he thinks they need to better understand the potential fallout on their customers who are stuck with older mobile OS software.

"It's not all economics-based. We are talking highly regulated networks, some loosely held together. They are concerned about what they are introducing into their environments. Where there's room for improvement is making sure those vendors understand the risk profile they're carrying," Stone said. "I want to make sure carriers are aware ... of the risk they are projecting on their customers" by not providing consistent and pervasive software updates.

Even so, carriers are becoming more aware of that issue, he added.

Soghoian said the safest bet is a Google Nexus Android device because it's regularly updated because Google controls it. "But Google doesn't want to emphasize this" because of its other Android partnerships, he says.

"Wireless is public enemy No. 1 when it comes to cybesecurity," Soghoian said.

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About the Author(s)

Kelly Jackson Higgins, Editor-in-Chief, Dark Reading

Kelly Jackson Higgins is the Editor-in-Chief 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 Magazine, Virginia Business magazine, and other major media properties. Jackson Higgins was recently selected as one of the Top 10 Cybersecurity Journalists in the US, and named as one of Folio's 2019 Top Women in Media. She began her career as a sports writer in the Washington, DC metropolitan area, and earned her BA at William & Mary. Follow her on Twitter @kjhiggins.

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