Google has recently announced the forthcoming availability of Ice Cream Sandwich, Android 4.0. In such a short time, Android has seemingly come so far. I’d like to stop and take a look at the security improvements and additions featured in this release.
Google’s Android debuted in November 2007 and with its steady rise in popularity we also saw researchers begin to search for holes. A number of vulnerabilities have been found from root exploits like Rage Against the Cage to cross application scripting bugs like CVE-2011-2357.
With the release of Ice Cream Sandwich we can expect some new advances in Android security. Google promises:
A new Keychain API and encrypted storage
According to Google this lets “let applications store and retrieve private keys and their corresponding certificate chains. Any application can use the keychain API to install and store user certificates and CAs securely.”
Certificate handling issues are a real concern for Android users after the Diginotar fiasco.
Address Space Layout Randomization
ASLR is a method of protecting the system and third party applications from being attacked by randomizing their addresses in memory. It is an absolute requirement in the desktop computing world, and it’s great to see it arrive, although late, on Android. iOS has had this feature for some time.
Additionally it seems that the Android developers are taking a greater interest in enterprise security.
Full Device Encryption
Actually a feature of the 3.X codebase, but now available for phones, device encryption is an absolute must for any mobile device as the compact size makes them incredibly easy to lose. Unfortunately this has been far too long in coming.
VPN client API
According to Google, “Developers can now build or extend their own VPN solutions on the platform using a new VPN API and underlying secure credential storage.” Using VPN’s can help protect against session hijacking tools like firesheep.
Device Policy Management for camera
Administrators can now institute a policy for disabling the users camera.
One of the cooler new security features being debuted is Face Unlock. This promises to set a standard for user-friendly security, as long as the implementation is of good quality and the speed is acceptable. Despite the cool factor, if it takes longer to recognize my face than to slide unlock and enter my pin, I just won’t use it. There have been questions on the effectiveness of face unlock, for example using the victim’s photo to access a locked device, but Google promises that they have accounted for this and an actual head will be required.
While it’s good to see some new security features being added to this ever-expanding platform, I was really hoping for a mechanism to back port patches when future devices inevitably leave Ice Cream Sandwich obsolete. It’s currently easier to release new versions of Android on new and shiny phones than it is for users to keep up. Phone contracts in the US are commonly locked in for 2 years. New operating systems for these devices, as well as their associated hardware, far outpace most people’s ability to keep pace with them.