Developers from the Replicant project (a free Android offshoot) have documented a serious software back-door in Samsung's Android phones, which "provides remote access to the data stored on the device." They believe it is "likely" that the backdoor could provide "over-the-air remote control" to "access the phone's file system."
At issue is Samsung's proprietary IPC protocol, used in its modems. This protocol implements a set of commands called "RFS commands." The Replicant team says that it can't find "any particular legitimacy nor relevant use-case" for adding these commands, but adds that "it is possible that these were added for legitimate purposes, without the intent of doing harm by providing a back-door. Nevertheless, the result is the same and it allows the modem to access the phone's storage."
The Replicant site includes proof-of-concept sourcecode for a program that will access the file-system over the modem. Replicant has created a replacement for the relevant Samsung software that does not allow for back-door access.
Boeing has sought regulatory approval from the FCC for a tamper-resistant phone intended to self-destruct if its case is opened. The phone, called "Black," runs Android, and is intended for use under the DoD Mobile Classified Capabilities guidelines. It will be sold with a nondisclosure agreement prohibiting tampering or service, and opening the case will trigger a system intended to wipe the phone's data.
Interestingly, it has a removable battery (something that's become increasingly scarce in smartphones). Best operational security practice holds that you should remove your phone's battery when you want to be sure that it's off, because any malware that turned your phone into a bug could also cause it to simulate being switched off while it remained running.
It's an intriguing technical problem. I'm intuitively skeptical of the security model. I can believe that this phone will be tamper-evident, but I don't know if it will be all that tamper-resistant. That is, it may be capable of preventing an attacker from surreptitiously opening the case to access the components, but how about an adversary willing to simply smash the screen to get at the components beneath?
The manufacturer could make a phone whose accelerometer tried to detect these events and wipe the device as a precaution, but I suspect there'd be a lot of spooks who'd end up cursing their self-destructing phones every time they butterfingered them while getting them out of a pocket while walking down the street. I'm pretty sure that I can use tools to remove my phone's screen in a way that generates less detectable stress than it receives during everyday knockabout and drops.
Mat Honan, at Wired, quotes co-founder Steve Wozniak: “The great products really come from secret development,” he said. “You put small teams of great people on them and they aren’t bothered by other people commenting on what they’re doing while they’re doing it. A whole new category of products doesn’t happen very often. It might happen once a decade. Sometimes you have to wait for one of those to come about.”
There's a funny paradox in rooting your Android phone. Once you take total control over your phone, some apps refuse to run, because they're trying to do something that treats you as untrusted. Now there's a utility called Rootcloak that lets you tell your rooted phone to lie to apps about whether it is rooted. It's both long overdue and a neat demonstration of what it means to be root on a computer.
Blackphone is a secure, privacy-oriented mobile phone company co-founded by PGP inventor Phil Zimmerman. It integrates a lot of the privacy functionality of Zimmerman's Silent Circle, which makes Android-based privacy tools (secure calls, messaging, storage and proxies). Blackphone also runs Android, with a skin that switches on all the security stuff by default. The company is based in Switzerland, whose government privacy rules are better than most. The phone itself is a high-end, unlocked GSM handset. No info on pricing yet, but pre-orders open in late February. I'm interested in whether the sourcecode for the Blackphone stack will be free, open, auditable and transparent. If it is, I will certainly order one of these for myself and report here on its performance.
If you have an Android or Ios smartphone, it defaults to storing the history of all the places you go, at a very fine resolution, for a very long time, and mirrors that data on remote servers from which it might be leaked or subpoenaed. Lifehacker has a great tutorial on deleting your Location History and turning off future logging of your location. They cover both Ios and Android. I just did my devices, and it was very easy.
Bob Smolenski says: "I've released a new audio game app for blind and visually impaired. Open Field Echo Sounder uses GPS on your iPhone or Android. Walk to the center of an open field and six virtual targets will be arranged around you. Echo locate them using headphones to determine direction. Sighted folks can play it also ;)"
Peter Ecklersley, a staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, has written up a good explanation of how this works, and he attributes the decision to competitive pressure from Ios, which allows users to deny location data to apps, even if they "require" it during the installation process.
I think that's right, but not the whole story: Android has also always labored under competitive pressure from its free/open forks, like Cyanogenmod.
The latest (unstable) build of Cyanogenmod (a free/open version of Android) incorporates a secure, encrypted SMS program called TextSecure, which was created by Open WhisperSystems. Open WhisperSystems's chief engineer is the respected cryptographer and privacy advocate Moxie Marlinspike, and the source for the Cyanogenmod integration is open and available for inspection and scrutiny. The new encrypted SMS is designed to be integrated with whatever SMS app you use on your phone, and allows for extremely private, interception- and surveillance-resistant messaging over the normally insecure SMS. It requires that both parties be using TextSecure, of course -- if you send a TextSecure message to someone without secure messaging, the message will fall back to unencrypted text.
In any event, Cyanogenmod's installer can be "sideloaded" into your device without having to go through the Play Store (one of the advantages of Android is that it doesn't attempt to prevent you from installing unapproved software). Hundreds of thousands of people used the Play Store version, and we can hope that it remains in use, even without Google's official support.
Cyanogenmod Installer is a one-click Android app that unlocks your bootloader, roots your device, and flashes Cyanogenmod's OS onto it. Cyanogenmod is a free/open fork of Android, where much of the proprietary Google elements have been replaced by open equivalents, giving you lots more customizability and privacy in your device. For example, the Cyanogenmod device locating feature lets you find your phone, but makes it much harder for third parties to track you using the same feature. The company raised $7M in venture capital in September, and this is the first serious change the the OS since then, and it's a huge improvement. Previously, installing Cyanogenmod was pretty tricky and arcane, and was a huge barrier to adoption. Now you can download an app from the Play Store, and install with one click.
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A presentation by Android Security chief Adrian Ludwig at Berlin's Virus Bulletin conference lays out a fascinating picture of the security dynamic in the open Android ecosystem, through which Android users are able to install apps from the official, Google-operated Play Store, as well as from anywhere else they fancy. Ludwig describes a "defense-in-depth" strategy that is based on continuous monitoring of the overall Android world to come up with responses to malicious software. According to Ludwig, only 0.12 percent of Android apps have characteristics that Google thinks of as "potentially harmful" and there are lots of good apps that share these characteristics, so that number doesn't represent the number of infections. There's also a lot of material on the kind of badware they find on mobile handsets, from commercial spyware that looks at users' browser history and location data to snoopware that covertly spies through the camera and mic to fraudware that sends out premium-rate SMSes in the background.
The hoopy froods of Cyanogenmod -- a free/open replacement for Android, with lots of privacy- and security-oriented features -- have raised capital and are going commercial. They're going to productize Cyanogen with the motto "available on everything, to everyone." This is great news. Cyanogen isn't just a great OS -- it's also a huge force pushing Google into adding more features, even when the carriers hate them (for example, the addition of a tethering service to Android, which followed on from Cyanogen).