Mobile malware will test Android and iPhone

Mobile malware still elicits major headlines and is at the center of urgent research as well as speculation

2009 ushered in mobile malware with the first (and second) iPhone worm appearing just before Christmas. I strongly suspect that 2010 will be a pivotal year in the development of mobile malware. Smartphone software platforms and devices have become sophisticated and flexible enough to allow self-propagating malware and in a world where 9-year-olds are seen holding BlackBerries, the exposure surface is certainly big enough.

Mobile malware still elicits major headlines and is at the center of urgent research as well as speculation. The latest "suspect" came in the form of a banking application that briefly appeared and then was yanked from the Android application market. Security researchers, not having access to the deleted application, are speculating that it was a phishing app that fooled users into installing it as a gateway to banking sites in order to steal credentials and drain bank accounts. Others say it was probably harmless. Unfortunately, since the application was quickly pulled, there is no way to know exactly what it did.

The really interesting story emerges from the fundamental difference in the way Google and Apple deliver applications to their respective devices. While Apple maintains a closed application market with prior vetting of all applications, Google has an open market without vetting. The argument for vetting and signing of applications has always been that a closed application ecosystem made for a more secure device. The problem with that argument is that it gives both the device maker and the carrier ample opportunity to smother any application that threatens their business model (e.g. VoIP). If the vetting process is not transparent, the problem is further exaggerated by seemingly capricious, contradictory or arbitrary decisions by the vetting agent. Already, the Apple marketplace has been the center of multiple application vetting controversies and lawsuits, usually around applications that either offended Apple's sensitivities or threatened its revenue.

In my opinion a-priori vetting of applications is not the best approach to security, especially since it lulls both users and vendors into a false sense of security. Who needs security controls in the operating system all the applications are vetted? The downside of a close application market is that it acts as a drag on innovation without substantial or scalable security benefits.

The good news is that we won' have to wait too long to see how the two divergent strategies work out. The Android and iPhone ecosystems will be repeatedly tested in 2010 and beyond with more malware emerging for both platforms. One application marketplace will carefully vet each app and slow things down, hopefully gaining a security bonus. The other will encourage more innovation and variation but at the potential cost of security. In both cases, malware will slip through and the mobile operating system itself will be tested. Smart users will depend on neither vendor to keep them safe and will opt for operating system controls such as antivirus. And we will get better data for the debate about open vs. closed software ecosystems.

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1 Comment

Martin Hill


You should mention that the only malware targetting the iPhone at this point can only attack jailbroken iPhones that have had all of Apple's security features disabled making them as open to malware as Android, Windows Mobile and Symbian which all already suffer from malware in different shapes and forms.

The fact that this malware also only attacks jailbroken iPhones that have not had their common default root password changed by the user makes it even more embarrassing for the jailbreaking crowd.

In contrast, non-jail-broken iPhones which represent the vast majority out there, are immensely less vulnerable featuring as they do mandatory signing of apps, rigid sandboxing, App Store vetting and Apple's last resort remote app delete functionality. It is not just vetting of Apps that makes the iPhone more secure.

There is no doubt whatsoever that the "open" model espoused by Android and most other mobile platforms is inherently far less secure. Even if the Android Marketplace (or other stores) start vetting apps, users can still bypass that security and accidentally download malware from any website, email, bluetooth transfer or SD card without constraint.

Corporate users with highly locked-down phones where the user can’t do anything are more secure, but that doesn’t help the vast majority of other end users of these competing platforms.

With major developers like Gameloft deserting Android because they make 400x the amount of money from the iPhone and with 133,000 apps, 3 billion downloads, 75 million iPhone OS devices and a far larger rate of growth, the "closed" nature of the iPhone platform doesn’t seem to have had much of a negative affect for Apple at this point.


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