930 Million Android Devices at Risk?Google Stops Patching Aging Android Component
Information security experts are calling on Google to rethink its patch priorities after it confirmed that it will no longer update a critical component that runs on Android 4.3 "Jelly Bean" and older devices. As a result, 61 percent of all Android smart phones and tablets - or about 930 million devices - will be running a version of Android that contains known vulnerabilities that an attacker could remotely exploit to seize control of the device or steal the data it stores, according to data security firm Rapid7.
At issue are the versions of WebView, which is used by Android to render Web pages, that are present in pre-Android 4.4 devices. Rapid7 researchers say that after finding and reporting a newly discovered vulnerability in older versions of WebView to Google's email@example.com team, Google responded that it was not going to issue a related patch.
Google says that if it receives a patch for older versions of WebView from a third party, it will distribute it to anyone who develops Android distributions. But Google says it no longer plans to create and distribute its own patches for such flaws. "If the affected version [of WebView] is before 4.4 [KitKat], we generally do not develop the patches ourselves but do notify partners of the issue," Google's e-mail to Rapid7 says. "If patches are provided with the report [from a third party] or put into AOSP [Android Open Source Project] we are happy to provide them to partners as well."
But Rapid7, citing data published by market researchers Gartner and Strategy Analytics, says Google's policy will leave the estimated 930 million mobile devices that run pre-KitKat versions of Google's open source Android operating system at risk, because they will be stuck running outdated - and vulnerable - versions of WebView. Device manufacturers could, theoretically, issue related patches themselves, but to date they have not done so.
A Google spokeswoman declined to comment on Rapid7's report.
Numerous hardware and software developers stop issuing updates for their products after they have been on the market for a specified period of time. But today, only 37 percent of in-use Android devices run version 4.4 of the operating system - introduced in November 2013 - and just 1.5 percent run the most recent version 5 - code-named Lollipop - according to market research firm Net Market Share.
In other words, 61 percent of still-in-use Android devices won't be receiving WebView updates from Google, and thus could be at risk from "mass-market exploits" designed to seize control of millions of devices at once, says Tod Beardsley, who's the technical lead for the Metasploit open source penetration testing framework, which is maintained by Rapid7.
"This is great news for penetration testers, of course; picking company data off of Android phones is going to be drop-dead easy," Beardsley says in a blog post. "Unfortunately, this is great news for criminals," because it gives them potential new ways to penetrate devices, implant malware, steal data or intercept communications.
Beardsley says that in the past year, two researchers have discovered nearly a dozen exploits in WebView - most of which affect versions of the component that run on Android 4.3 "Jelly Bean" and earlier devices - and that Metasploit currently ships with 11 exploits for known WebView flaws.
Newer WebView Auto-Updates
WebView is a widely used Android component. Indeed, Google's developer guide encourages Android developers to use WebView "to deliver a Web application - or just a Web page - as a part of a client application." Google's developer documentation further outlines a number of scenarios in which it might be employed, ranging from retrieving an end-user agreement or user guide from inside an app, to accessing any type of information that requires an Internet connection, such as retrieving e-mails.
From a security standpoint, the big-impact change was the ability - now found in all modern browsers - for WebView to be automatically updated by Google. In other words, thanks to Google uncoupling WebView from the innards of the Android operating system, WebView updates can be piped directly to all users of Android 4.4 and newer, just as Google does with any other app that's available via the Play Store and Google Play services, news site Android Police reports.
Here is why that change is good: Many Android devices run a version of the operating system that's customized by whichever OEM produces the device. As a result, every time Google releases an Android operating system update, the OEM has to test the update, then create a customized version for its devices. Thanks to the newer version of WebView, however, Google can now directly update that component on all Android 4.4 and newer devices, without the OEM having to build the patch into their version of Android and then distribute it to their users.
Android Is Open Source
But the question of whether it's right for Google to cease updating older versions of WebView, an important component that still runs on nearly 1 billion Android devices, remains. Rapid7's Beardsey notes that Android is technically an open source project, and that OEMs could, in theory, obtain patches for newly discovered flaws in older versions of WebView from third parties. But he says that to date, the OEMs that do patch Android have relied on updates issued directly from Google. "The update chain for Android already requires the handset manufacturers and service carriers to sign off on updates that are originated from Google, and I cannot imagine this process will be improved once Google itself has opted out of the patching business," he says. "After all, is AT&T or Motorola really more likely to incorporate a patch that comes from some guy on the Internet?"
Some OEMs have a relatively good track record at keeping customers' Android devices updated with the latest security fixes. But others rarely - if ever - release security patches for devices.
With Google ceasing to update a core component of Android that runs on pre-4.4 versions, the risks to users will only increase, Beardsley warns. "Please reconsider, Google," he says. "As a software developer, I know that supporting old versions of my software is a huge hassle. I empathize with their decision to cut legacy software loose. However, a billion people don't rely on old versions of my software to manage and safeguard the most personal details of their lives."