Another day, another sensationalist, unfounded security story

Dan Goodin, at Ars Technica, is writing about a security flaw in Android. It’s got all the usual scary-scary language about doom and gloom, quotes from antivirus peddlers, and it wasn’t long until sensationalist Apple site AppleInsider took it all one step further (relevant). So, is this a real security threat, or are we looking at sensationalism run amok?

This is the issue in a nutshell.

The Fake ID vulnerability stems from the failure of Android to verify the validity of cryptographic certificates that accompany each app installed on a device. The OS relies on the credentials when allocating special privileges that allow a handful of apps to bypass Android sandboxing. Under normal conditions, the sandbox prevents programs from accessing data belonging to other apps or to sensitive parts of the OS. Select apps, however, are permitted to break out of the sandbox. Adobe Flash in all but version 4.4, for instance, is permitted to act as a plugin for any other app installed on the phone, presumably to allow it to add animation and graphics support. Similarly, Google Wallet is permitted to access Near Field Communication hardware that processes payment information.

Sounds serious! Should you be worried? Is it time to stock up on canned beans and switch to a Nokia 3310? Of course, it’s always time to switch to a Nokia 3310, but not really because of this “issue”. Buried deep within the Ars Technica article is Google’s response to the issue.

After receiving word of this vulnerability, we quickly issued a patch that was distributed to Android partners, as well as to AOSP. Google Play and Verify Apps have also been enhanced to protect users from this issue. At this time, we have scanned all applications submitted to Google Play as well as those Google has reviewed from outside of Google Play, and we have seen no evidence of attempted exploitation of this vulnerability.

First, a patch been sent to OEMs and AOSP, but with Android’s abysmal update situation, this is a moot point. The crux, however, lies with Google Play and Verify Apps. These have already been updated to detect this issue, and prevent applications that try to abuse this flaw from being installed. This means two things.

First, that there are no applications in Google Play that exploit this issue. If you stick to Google Play, you’re safe from this issue, period. No ifs and buts. Second, even if you install applications from outside of Google Play, you are still safe from this issue. Verify Apps is part of Play Services, and runs on every Android device from 2.3 and up. It scans every application at install and continuously during use for suspect behaviour. In this case, an application that tries to exploit this flaw will simply be blocked from installing or running.

As a sidenote, you can actually disable Verify Apps, but unlike what some people seem to think, the dialog you get about sending data to Google when trying to sideload an application has nothing to do with this (that dialog just covers sending data about the application to Google, which is not required for Verify Apps to work). To actually completely disable Verify Apps, you need to go into the Google Settings application (or the Android settings application in 4.2 and up), navigate to Security, and disable it from there.

To get back to the matter at hand: this means that every Android user with Google Play Services is 100% protected from this issue. The only way an Android user can potentially be affected by this issue is if she, one specifically allows installation from unknown sources, and two, specifically disables Verify Apps – all accompanied by several warnings. Luckily, not a single application in or outside of Google Play is currently trying to exploit this issue.

While one can expect sensationalist nonsense from a site like AppleInsider – you don’t blame TMZ for reporting on a fart by Miley Cyrus; you don’t blame AppleInsider for spreading sensationalist nonsense – I’m very disappointed that a respected site like Ars Technica resorts to spreading this kind of fear, uncertainty, and doubt, especially since this isn’t the first time the site has done so.

Recently, it has become very clear that the security industry – antivirus peddlers and similar companies – have focussed all their attention on Android, resorting to all sorts of dirty tactics to scare unsuspecting users into buying their useless software. Since I can’t stress this often enough: do not install antivirus on Android (or iOS, for that matter). It is not needed in any way, shape, or form.

This is not the first time they have tried to spread and exploit fear, uncertainty, and doubt. Back when Windows started properly shoring up its security, Microsoft released MSE, and the mass infections of the early XP days became a thing of the past, they tried to use the exact same tactics to try and scare the rapidly growing number of OS X users into buying their junk.

I advocated against this practice then (more here), and I will advocate against it now. When you come across stories like this, you can almost always assume it’s FUD, whether it covers Android, OS X, or iOS. They almost always originate from antivirus peddlers, who know full well that operating system security – on both desktop and mobile – has increased so much these past decade or so that their core business model is at stake, and as such, they have to drum up the FUD. I just wish respected websites would not dance to their tunes for clicks.

And yes, you should totally get a 3310.


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