This week's discovery of malware that hijacked tens of thousands of Android cellphones shows the pitfalls of Google's decision to make the operating system the Wikipedia of mobile platforms that offers apps written by virtually anyone.
A couple years ago, the choice helped the OS gain traction against Apple's more entrenched iPhone by quickly building out the number of apps available in the Android Market. Once developers pay a $25 registration fee, Google gives them “complete control over when and how they make their applications available to users.” Contrast that with Apple's App Store, which the company rules with an iron fist.
The recent discovery of some 55 malware-tainted apps available in the Android Market shines a bright light on the dark side of its openness. The malware hid in legitimate titles that had been repackaged and distributed by three developers. Once installed, the apps exploited known vulnerabilities that gave the malware root access to a phone's most sensitive functions, according to this analysis from Lookout, which provides antimalware apps for Android, Blackberry and Windows Mobile handsets.
A separate analysis provided by antivirus firm Kaspersky Labs said that DreamDroid, as the malware has been dubbed, connected to a server controlled by the attackers, where it appeared to access “a list of applications to download and install on the already infected device.” In other words, DreamDroid is a classic trojan backdoor downloader. The infected apps were downloaded by phones that numbered in the tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands, according to Market figures.
The mass infections are already prompting commentary comparing Android to Microsoft Windows.
“The openness of the platform and the availability of alternative application markets makes Android-based devices more difficult to secure,” security researcher Vanja Svajcer wrote on Sophos's Naked Security blog. “The whole situation reminds me of Windows some years ago. One keeps wondering if history is repeating again?”
If there's any vetting of apps submitted to the Android Market, there's no mention of it on Google's webpages, and the company's PR department didn't respond to questions asking about what kind of scrutiny it gives to software available in its Market. As The Reg has reported before, Google can remotely remove apps on users' Android phones, but by then a handset would already be infected.
And besides, as Lookout CTO and co-founder Kevin Mahaffey noted to The Reg: “The really nasty thing about root exploits is that once you're root you can do things that disable the remote removal tool.” In other words, Google's kill switch can itself be killed.
The episode demonstrates the ugly predicament confronting consumers of smartphone apps. One choice is to opt for the heavy-handed control exercised by Apple's App Store. You may not be able to run Flash-based software, use the alternative browser of your choice, or do any number of other things you want to do, but so far the marketplace, despite being around a lot longer, hasn't presented the kind of security menace we saw this week in Google's apps bazaar.
The Android Market's freewheeling nature, on the other hand, is more appealing to many because it feels more more. More like a stroll down the streets of New York, as opposed to a parade in a Steve Jobs version of Disney Land. Yeah, Android's openness is fun, but only until someone gets hurt. ®