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A clear-eyed guide to Android's actual security risks

Bob Violino | Dec. 10, 2013
A knee-jerk no to Android in business is unnecessary, and an overly fearful security approach is actually risky.

Everything looked fine, and once the game opened nothing changed on the device. "Then the demonstrator took out a laptop and was able to bring up a control stream where he could see all the smartphones that had downloaded the game and could inspect them and see all the emails they had downloaded."

He then put the Android device to sleep and took a picture from the device remotely using the laptop. "Normally, you hear a shutter sound, but this [malware] had turned off the audio," Borg says. "It took pictures and video, and all along it looked like the device was asleep."

For Borg, such examples justify IT's strong aversion to Android, despite its huge popularity among users. "This is a clarion call that security cannot be taken for granted. I don't think these [Android security] issues are overblown."

The risks of Android's fragmentation. The Android platform also suffers the issue of fragmentation -- there are multiple versions of Android in the market, even on current devices. Manufacturers often make their own changes to Android, so they could be behind Google's current reference release. In addition, carriers and manufacturers may not update their devices' Android version when Google does, or they take months or even years to do so.

As a result, many people within the same organization might be using outdated versions that could be riddled with security vulnerabilities. "People focus on malware risks of Android, but arguably the greater risk is that fragmentation creates different user experiences," says Ojas Rege, vice president of strategy at MobileIron, a provider of enterprise mobility management products. "This variety of user experiences makes it hard to educate your employees about how to take security measures, because the experience on each device is different."

Research shows that a majority of Android device users worldwide have devices with noncurrent versions of the OS, says Bob Egan, chief analyst at consulting firm Sepharim Group. "Some of the phones and OSes have very public weaknesses on security," he says.

If users have older versions of Android, that could mean vulnerabilities are left unpatched and new features of the OS won't reach them. "Maybe you can address the security holes for the HTC One, for example, but that might not apply to an older Samsung device," Borg says. The fragmentation issue multiplies the attack surface; thus, there's no single security solution that will fit all of Android's variations, he says.

Some Android risks are overstated -- and others are underestimated

Experts note that some Android risks are overstated, while others don't get enough attention.

Although Citrix's Sekar says fragmentation doesn't receive enough focus in security assessments, he considers Android malware fears overblown. "Traditional antivirus software vendors often hype up the threat of Android malware," he says. While these threats exist in isolated scenarios where users access apps from untrusted, private stores, the threat to enterprises from malware is overstated, he says.


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