Android Security Improved in 2014, yet Risks Remain

NEWS ANALYSIS: Google made strides in 2014 to improve Android security, but a large number of legacy users might not see the full benefit.

Android Security

As the popularity of Google's Android mobile operating system has grown over the years, so too have the security threats against it—that is, until 2014, according to Google's Android Security State of the Union 2014 report. Although Google has made significant strides in improving security, the reality is that Android users still face a number of non-trivial challenges and well-known security risks.

At the heart of Google's claims of improved security in Android during 2014 are improvements to the security of apps in Google Play, the official app store for Android. According to Google, more than a billion devices benefit from Google Play's security mechanisms.

Of the Android devices that Google was aware of in 2014, less than 1 percent had some form of what Google refers to as a Potentially Harmful App (PHA) installed in 2014. The rate of PHA installation declines for those devices that only download apps from Google play, where only 0.15 percent of devices had a PHA. Overall, Google claims that the rate of PHA installations declined by nearly 50 percent between the first and fourth quarters of 2014.

What's Behind the Numbers

A primary reason Android security, from Google's perspective, improved over 2014 is the multiple security enhancements Google made to the platform. Of particular note is the inclusion of SELinux (Security Enhanced Linux) controls in Android 4.4. SELinux provides an additional layer of security policy and control to protect running processes and applications. Starting with Android 5.0, there are even more security enhancements including improved full-disk encryption and authentication mechanisms.

Google's report also calls out the use of the Google Safety Net technology, which aims to provide security protection for all Android apps a user might install, even if those apps were not installed from Google Play. Google's report explains that Safety Net "detects and protects against non app-based security threats such as network attacks."

The report also highlights Google's improved Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) protection for app developers.

"In May, Google Play Services introduced an updateable Security Provider that allows application developers to use a version of SSL provided and maintained by Google Play Services," Google's report stated.

The Role of Mobile App Devs

While Google has tried to help app developers improve SSL transport security for Android apps, the actual deployment story is a bit different. Intel Security's February 2015 McAfee Labs Threat report found that SSL security in mobile apps continues to be an issue. McAfee Labs found that many app developers still don't implement SSL correctly, even though Google has provided developer resources to educate and help improve the state of mobile SSL.

Google also notes in its Android security report that over the course of 2014, it provided 79 security patches for Android. Google also released two major milestone updates to Android in 2014, with Android 4.4 and the Android 5.0 preview.

"Both of these platform releases included security improvements as well as patches for newly discovered vulnerabilities," Google's report stated. "By February 2, 2015, Android 4.4 has become the most widely distributed version of Android with over 41 percent of Android devices that check in to Google services running Android 4.4 or greater."

The patching and update numbers are impressive, but there is a catch. With Android 4.4 representing approximately 41 percent of Android devices, that means that more than half of all Android devices and the majority of Android users are running older software. The challenge and the risk is that not all of those older versions of Android are being actively maintained or patched by either Google or its Android handset partners.

In a January interview with eWEEK, Jeff Forristal, CTO of mobile security vendor Bluebox Security, explained that older Android vulnerabilities that he first disclosed at the Black Hat 2013 and 2014 conferences still pose a risk in 2015. The challenge is that Android device vendors typically only support a given device for two years, leaving older devices at risk.

So while Google has made impressive strides in 2014 to improve security for many in the Android ecosystem, the truth is that there is still a long tail of legacy users that might not see the full benefit.

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at eWEEK and 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.