Lest you think Facebook is the only security punching bag getting a beating lately, two significant flaws in the Android application platform have been revealed by overseas security teams. Without going into the gory details, each team has found a different way to create a trojanized APK (the file format in which Android apps are delivered) that is indistinguishable from the original. This would allow an app to appear and function normally, but also execute functions like transmitting your passwords, texts, emails on the sly. Google has already put together a fix and distributed a patch to OEM manufacturers, and supposedly they are able to detect this sort of exploit on the Google Play Store.
You need to worry if you “sideload” apps on your Android phone, which is to say you get apps from sources other than Google Play. Keep in mind, even Amazon’s App store counts as a sideloading source, and as of the moment, they aren’t scanning for this vulnerability.
What this means for you:
Even though Google has issued a fix for this particular vulnerability, they can’t force the update upon the millions of Android phones out there affected by this weakness, as that task lies with the phone manufacturers and the carriers. With the exception of avid power-users, most Android users are unaware that their Android OS may be months or years out of date, primarily because cellular carriers insist on selling phones that use a modified version of the OS that does not automatically get updated when Google updates the core version of Android. On top of this, the carriers are notoriously slow in issuing updates. If you are wondering what folks are talking about when they are discussing “Gingerbread”, “Honeycomb”, “Ice Cream Sandwich” and “Jelly Bean”, they are referring to the various versions of Android OS, where Jelly Bean is the latest. Supposedly this exploit exists as far back as “Donut” (ver 1.6).
Even worse, certain older models of Android phones may never get updated, as the carrier has essentially abandoned firmware updates for phones that are “retired” from active support. Users of these phones have essentially two options: root, unlock and update the phone with a custom version of the Android OS developed by the open source community, or buy a new phone. The former option is definitely not for technically-disinclined. Given the gravity of the vulnerability, the carriers may issue patches for the majority of its phones, but I wouldn’t hold your breath.
Until you are able to verify your Android smartphone is running a version of the OS that fixes this vulnerability, don’t sideload applications. If you want to be extra safe, avoid using smartphone apps that transmit sensitive information like banking passwords, pins and other sensitive personal information. As I’ve reiterated before, exercise caution before convenience, especially when it comes to protecting yourself.
According to analyst IDC, Android-based smartphones account for three out of every 4 phones sold worldwide in Q3 2012. As anticipated, this expansion of the market has also prompted a surge in fraudulent apps being developed and installed on phones. Security firm F-Secure reports a 10X increase in the number of distinct malware apps detected in the marketplace, finding over 50k apps this quarter alone. Most of these apps appear to be making their debut on 3rd party apps stores outside of the US looser security standards allow the malware to slip into the marketplace undetected.
What this means for you:
Earlier this year, Google implemented a security review process on its official “Play” store, reducing the number of fraudulent apps significantly. However, unlike the iPhone ecosystem, which locks users into only getting apps through its tightly controlled and reviewed iTunes appstore, Androids can bypass the Google’s official appstore to “sideload” apps on their smartphones via a single checkbox setting that is available in the operating system. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. With the possible exception of Amazon’s App Store, I would not recommend installing apps from any 3rd party app store. Amazon.com led the way in sideloading by announcing their own appstore in early 2011, primarily as a means to avoid paying distribution fees to Google to service their own Android-based Kindle devices. Given that keeping their user base safe is probably of utmost concern, it’s likely that Amazon will be carefully reviewing apps distributed through their ecosystem.
If you insist on sideloading apps from a 3rd party app store, make sure you know what you are doing, review the apps carefully, and when in doubt, do your research before installing that magical app that will do it all, and is also free. It may not cost you any money up front, but the longterm damage to your security and identity may be a cost you can’t afford.