Mobile security top 10 issues to consider

Jason Steer Veracode

The inevitable has happened. 2011 has become the year of mobile malware. All the pieces of the malware ecosystem puzzle that researchers have been warning about are falling into place:

  • Little to no vetting of apps for malicious behaviour before being made available from app stores
  • Android kernel code with known privilege escalation vulnerabilities and no way for many mobile users to patch their devices
  • Attacker motivation in the form of big numbers of vulnerable devices and several proven ways to monetize their attacks: premium SMS/dialling, in app purchases, and ad click fraud.

The malicious apps that were pulled were legitimate apps that had been pirated, modified by the attackers, and republished. To downloaders of these apps they behaved and looked like well-functioning ones. There was no reason for these users to rate these apps poorly in the Android Marketplace's reputation system or to leave comments that the apps were suspicious. This shows that reputation systems are a poor method of ensuring an app store is free of malware.

To Google's credit they did remove the apps and have, or will, wipe the apps from users' devices but this is too little, too late. The mobile devices are already compromised as the malware took advantage of kernel vulnerabilities to root the devices and download more malware that didn't come through the app store. Anyone who ran the malicious apps now has a compromised device running software with root permissions that Google cannot wipe.

The exact same thing could happen tomorrow even though we know what Android kernel exploit code was used and there are new versions of Android that fix these issues. This is because many Android phones cannot be updated to the new versions of Android, 2.2.2 and 2.3, that fix the root holes. Many Android phone providers have customized their versions of Android so up to half of Android phones running 2.0, 2.1, 2.2 are sitting ducks to the same problem tomorrow.

There are two problems that need fixing because we can't fix the attacker motivation piece of the puzzle:

  • App stores need to get serious about vetting code before it is available for customer download. The halo effect of the app store distribution channel combined with the fact that many apps are from developers no one has ever heard of, and the failure of the reputation model of policing means that vetting apps is the only way to lessen malware in the app store.
  • Kernel flaws need to be fixed promptly and pushed out to all devices. Devices stuck with gaping kernel holes for years are just not acceptable for a consumer platform


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