ACLU complains to FTC that mobile carriers leave Android phones unsecured

Verizon Wireless, AT&T, Sprint Nextel and T-Mobile USA have been named in the complaint

Smartphones with custom versions of Android offered by large mobile operators in the U.S. are not getting security updates as regularly as phones from Google, or smartphones from other vendors like Microsoft, according to a complaint by the American Civil Liberties Union to the Federal Trade Commission.

"Android smartphones that do not receive regular, prompt security updates are defective and unreasonably dangerous," ACLU said in the complaint on Tuesday.

The complaint against AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Sprint Nextel and T-Mobile USA states that "all of the major wireless carriers have failed to deliver regular, prompt updates to Android phones which they have sold to their customers," citing results from a survey in December last year by technology news site Ars Technica.

The sale of mobile computing devices such as smartphones and the software updates to the devices are not part of common carrier activities, and are hence subject to FTC authority, according to the complaint, a copy of which is on the ACLU website.

The mobile carriers accused in the complaint could not be immediately reached for comment.

Most Android devices offered by operators are customized by handset makers and wireless operators to support specific hardware, proprietary user interfaces and software application and services, with the result that they are "in effect, unique operating systems which only these companies have the ability to update," according to the complaint.

ACLU distinguishes between "Google-managed Nexus devices", which are sold and managed directly by Google, and run the standard version of Android, and "Non-Google-managed Nexus devices." While the Google managed devices receive regular software updates from Google, the others "do not -- and, in fact, cannot -- receive operating system updates without the participation and approval of the wireless carrier."

Device manufacturers can take time to produce a device-specific update incorporating a vulnerability fix, if there are proprietary modifications to the device's software, according to a 2012 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, also cited by ACLU. Carriers can be delayed in providing the updates from the manufacturer because they need time to test whether they interfere with other aspects of the device or the software installed on it, it added.

The browsers on the smartphones are also outdated and pose security risks, according to the complaint, which has asked the FTC to require the operators to allow users to exchange their Android smartphones that are less than 2 years old for one that receives regular security updates, or return the phone for a full refund of the purchase price, if they have not been receiving regular and prompt security updates.

ACLU also asked the FTC to compel the operators to allow customers using carrier-supplied Android smartphones to cancel contracts without any early termination fees. The operators should also be compelled to warn all subscribers using carrier-supplied Android smartphones with known, unpatched security vulnerabilities.

In a similar case, the FTC filed suit last year against hospitality company Wyndham Worldwide and three of its subsidiaries for alleged data security failures leading to three data breaches at Wyndham hotels in less than two years. The FTC said it was part of its ongoing effort to make sure companies live up to their promises on security and data privacy.

John Ribeiro covers outsourcing and general technology breaking news from India for The IDG News Service. Follow John on Twitter at @Johnribeiro. John's e-mail address is john_ribeiro@idg.com

Join the PC World newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags Android OStelecommunicationCarriersat&tsecuritysprint nextelT-Mobile USAVerizon Wireless

Our Back to Business guide highlights the best products for you to boost your productivity at home, on the road, at the office, or in the classroom.

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

John Ribeiro

IDG News Service
Show Comments

Essentials

Lexar® JumpDrive® S57 USB 3.0 flash drive

Learn more >

Microsoft L5V-00027 Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard Desktop

Learn more >

Mobile

Lexar® JumpDrive® S45 USB 3.0 flash drive 

Learn more >

Exec

Lexar® Professional 1800x microSDHC™/microSDXC™ UHS-II cards 

Learn more >

Lexar® JumpDrive® C20c USB Type-C flash drive 

Learn more >

HD Pan/Tilt Wi-Fi Camera with Night Vision NC450

Learn more >

Audio-Technica ATH-ANC70 Noise Cancelling Headphones

Learn more >

Budget

Back To Business Guide

Click for more ›

Most Popular Reviews

Latest News Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Azadeh Williams

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

A smarter way to print for busy small business owners, combining speedy printing with scanning and copying, making it easier to produce high quality documents and images at a touch of a button.

Andrew Grant

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

I've had a multifunction printer in the office going on 10 years now. It was a neat bit of kit back in the day -- print, copy, scan, fax -- when printing over WiFi felt a bit like magic. It’s seen better days though and an upgrade’s well overdue. This HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 looks like it ticks all the same boxes: print, copy, scan, and fax. (Really? Does anyone fax anything any more? I guess it's good to know the facility’s there, just in case.) Printing over WiFi is more-or- less standard these days.

Ed Dawson

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

As a freelance writer who is always on the go, I like my technology to be both efficient and effective so I can do my job well. The HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 Inkjet Printer ticks all the boxes in terms of form factor, performance and user interface.

Michael Hargreaves

Windows 10 for Business / Dell XPS 13

I’d happily recommend this touchscreen laptop and Windows 10 as a great way to get serious work done at a desk or on the road.

Aysha Strobbe

Windows 10 / HP Spectre x360

Ultimately, I think the Windows 10 environment is excellent for me as it caters for so many different uses. The inclusion of the Xbox app is also great for when you need some downtime too!

Mark Escubio

Windows 10 / Lenovo Yoga 910

For me, the Xbox Play Anywhere is a great new feature as it allows you to play your current Xbox games with higher resolutions and better graphics without forking out extra cash for another copy. Although available titles are still scarce, but I’m sure it will grow in time.

Featured Content

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?