October 31, 2010 6:29 pm

Android faces critical security study

 
HTC phone

A study by analysis group Coverity turned up programming errors in a critical part of the system that ships with HTC Droid Incredible phones

An analysis of the most critical part of the Android smartphone operating system has turned up programming errors, some of which could allow hackers or malicious applications to access users’ e-mail or other sensitive information.

The study examined the publicly disclosed version of the Android kernel – heart of Google’s open-source software for phones – that shipped inside the HTC Droid Incredible phones.

But the study says it is likely other Android phones have the same programming flaws.

Android software could be updated wirelessly, so Google would be able to issue the fixes if it confirmed they were needed, a spokesman said.

The study by Coverity, the code analysis group, serves as a reminder that smartphones are vulnerable to attacks even as the phones are welcomed more extensively in big companies.

Research in Motion, maker of the BlackBerry, and Apple, maker of the iPhone, have also fixed critical security issues in their software through updates.

Companies are increasingly allowing employees smartphones for mixed business and personal use, and are granting more access to internal functions from the phones.

Some groups that previously accepted only BlackBerry, which has a strong reputation on security, are allowing iPhones, Androids or both.

“We’re running in a risky situation before people can get a handle on how to make them more secure,” Chris Wysopal, chief technology officer of Veracode, which analyses smartphone applications for programming flaws, said.

“Any problems at the kernel are definitely worth worrying about.”

The Financial Times received an advance copy of Coverity’s summary, which will be published on Tuesday.

The company has given details of the flaws to Google and handset maker HTC, which are assessing the findings.

Andy Chou, Coverity’s co-founder, said he planned to make the details of the errors public in about two months.

HTC had no immediate comment.

“We want them to fix the problems. We are trying to follow the model for responsible disclosure,” Mr Chou said.

While the number of Android kernel flaws Coverity turned up per thousand lines of code is lower than the average for open-source projects, 88 of the Android problems are “high-risk defects”.

They include improper memory access and memory corruption, and have “significant potential to cause security vulnerabilities, data loss, or quality problems such as system crashes”.

Most malicious software found on smartphones thus far has been aimed at a quick score. Some phones have been made to send expensive text messages, for example.

Mr Wysopal and others said gambits were likely to include more data-stealing programs known as spyware, which bedevil technology managers by getting inside personal computers and networks at companies.

Big corporate vendors, such as Juniper Networks and Cisco Systems, have started selling secure virtual private networks for smartphones and antivirus and other defensive measures for gadgets.

Such worries pale beside concerns about smartphones being lost or stolen, John Pescatore, lead internet security analyst at Gartner, said.

“The information loss [through loss or theft] is so much more of a risk than a worm or virus. Yes, they exist. And sharks eat people, but that doesn’t make the top 10 of my list either.”

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