How Google Secures Over a Billion Android Users

While big vulnerabilities like Stagefright have captured headlines, Google's Android security chief tells the RSA Conference how security actually works in Android.

Adrian Ludwig

SAN FRANCISCO—Delivering secure mobile technology to billions of users and protecting them from both known and unknown threats is no easy task, but it's the task that Google has aggressively taken on with Android. Speaking at the RSA Conference here, Adrian Ludwig, director of Android security at Google, detailed the methods used by Google to keep its mobile platform and its billions of users secure.

Among the myriad challenges that Google faces is the simple fact that there are many different devices and configurations used by handset vendors and carriers for Android. Getting all the devices updated with Google's latest security features isn't something that can happen overnight. For example, with Android 5.0 "Lollipop," which was first released in 2014, few users made use of device encryption. With Android 6.0 "Marshmallow," which was released in 2015, approximately 20 percent of devices are encrypted. With Android 7 "Nougat," which debuted this year, Google made encryption even easier to deploy. As a result, 80 percent of Nougat devices use encryption.

Android provides not only encryption now, but also application isolation, device integrity and exploit mitigation capabilities directly as part of the operating system. In addition to the operating system security features, having security services on the platform is also necessary, Ludwig said.

Google has multiple security services, including Verify Apps, an anti-malware scanning service that looks for malware on devices. Google also has a sensor network that looks for potential compromises across the Android landscape. And Google has device management services such as device locking and remote wiping, as well as APIs that enable Enterprise Mobility Management (EMM) applications to provide even more services.

"Scale is a key differentiator for Google," Ludwig said. "We do over 750 million device scans per day and check over 6 billion apps per day."

Ludwig took specific aim at the issue of malware apps on Android. According to Google's latest data, only 0.69 percent of all Android devices have some form of potentially harmful app, he said. Going a level deeper, for devices that only get apps from the official Google Play app store, Ludwig estimates that at most only 0.05 percent of such Android devices have ever encountered some form of potentially harmful app.

The key lesson from these figures, Ludwig emphasized, is that it's significantly safer to download and use apps from Google Play than from non-Google app sources.

"So don't install apps from outside of Google Play," he said.

Malware

While malicious apps are a concern, the reality is that is not how Android users are actually being exploited. Rather, Ludwig sees social engineering attacks as being the primary attack vector against Android today.

With social engineering attacks, a user sees, for example, a spam advertisement asking the user to install something that then compromises his or her device in some way.

Ludwig also took direct aim at the media and widespread reports about big vulnerabilities including the MasterKey, FakeID and Stagefright vulnerabilities that have been disclosed at the Black Hat conference in recent years.

For example, the headlines about Stagefright claimed a billion users were at risk. But Ludwig refuted that claim, saying the reality is very different, noting that Google has no confirmed evidence of user exploitation.

Looking forward, Ludwig realizes that Google still has work to do to make Android even more secure. Among the big challenges is reducing the amount of time it takes for carriers and device vendors to make security updates available, which is an area that Google is actively working to address. Ludwig also expects to continue to grow Google's bug bounty program for Android, rewarding researchers for reporting potential security issues.

Fundamentally, while the challenges of securing over a billion users falls on Google, Ludwig noted that for users, the bottom line is it all should just work.

"People don't want to think about security, they; just want it to be that way," he said.

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at eWEEK and InternetNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist.

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner is an Internet consultant, strategist, and contributor to several leading IT business web sites.