Android under fire again for poor vulnerability patching

More than half of Android devices worldwide have unpatched vulnerabilities

Carriers and device managers continue to be slow at patching Android devices, as the number of malware targeting the mobile operating system soars, recent studies show.

Two security vendor reports released last week point to the continuation of a longstanding problem with Android devices. The platform remains the prime target for malware, yet there's no easy way for users to keep the software up to date with the latest patches.

In the latest findings, Duo Security collected results from 20,000 Android devices that users had scanned with the company's X-Ray vulnerability assessment tool, which became generally available a couple of months ago.

Based on the results, Duo estimates that more than half of Android devices worldwide have unpatched vulnerabilities.

"We feel this is actually a fairly conservative estimate based on our preliminary results, the current set of vulnerabilities detected by X-Ray, and the current distribution of Android versions globally," Jon Oberheide, Duo's chief technology officer, said in a blog post.

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Duo's findings are in line with a Bit9 report released this year. The security vendor found that 56% of Android phones in the marketplace in 2011 were running out of date and insecure versions of the software. Device manufacturers found to be slow in upgrading phones included Samsung, HTC, Motorola, Sanyo, LG and Sony.

In the meantime, Sophos reported last week that the number of newly discovered malware for Android has increased 41 times this year over 2011, based on samples collected by the vendor's lab.

Almost half of the increase comes from a family of toll fraud malware targeting Eastern European markets. Toll fraud is when a malicious app secretly sends text messages from a hijacked phone to paid services. Cybercriminals typically get a cut of the generated revenue.

Closer to home, the biggest threat in the U.S. is new apps that contain aggressive advertising tactics that cross the privacy line. The more aggressive apps place links for sponsored apps in the phone's launcher area, display advertising even when the app is not running and send the user's personal information to the advertising server. These tactics are often in violation of Google's ad policy for Android.

Overall, the studies reinforce what security experts have known for years: Android fragmentation is an ongoing risk for users.

Unlike iOS, which only Apple controls on the iPhone and iPad, the Android market has many vendors using many versions of the platform. This translates into a mishmash of patching strategies made more complicated by carriers responsible for pushing out updates.

"Some carriers push out patches sooner than others, and some users install patches sooner than others," said Chenxi Wang, an analyst for Forrester Research. "No one should really be surprised that more than half of Android devices have unpatched flaws. Would the situation get better any time soon? I don't see it."

While no easy solution is in sight, Android malware is on the rise, which increases the risk to users with unpatched phones, Wang said. However, mobile malware is not at the level of maturity as malicious apps built to exploit vulnerabilities in PCs, so the danger to Android users is far less.

"You can survive not having updated your phone OS for some time, but you cannot survive if you don't update your [antivirus] or OS patches for your PC," Wang said.

The level of risk to Android users is a longstanding debate in the industry. While antivirus vendors are a steady source of threat research, Google has said they are hyping the risk to sell their products.

Read more about wireless/mobile security in CSOonline's Wireless/Mobile Security section.

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Antone Gonsalves

CSO (US)
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