Why Android security fearmongering is total BS

by Joseph K. Clark

Over the years, plenty of FUD — fear, uncertainty, and doubt — spread surrounding Android phone security. And I’ll be honest: much of it was well deserved in the early days. The fragmented nature of Android, the sheer amount of stuff that required a complete firmware upgrade to change, and the reticence of phone makers to roll out those updates meant that Android phones were more susceptible to security issues than the iPhone.

Apple could quickly patch its entire ecosystem ten years ago if a significant iPhone security vulnerability had been discovered. On Android, you could be left waiting months if a fix ever made it to your device. For an Android security issue to be addressed in 2011, new code had to be pushed out by Google, then integrated into your phone’s firmware by the manufacturer, and eventually signed off by your carrier. That’s not an ideal sequence of events if time is of the essence, as it likely would be if a nasty new software vulnerability were being exploited in the wild.

Android security has come a long way in the past ten years.

But Android in general, and Android security in particular, has come a long way over the past decade. The best Android phones now guarantee four years of regular security patches, and Android is now more secure by design. And the tired trope of Android owners never getting updates and Android phones being mired in malware is now outdated.

Android security

The problem is how Google keeps Android safe and secure is nebulous and pretty technical. While Apple, with its vertical integration and the relatively small number of phone models, can roll out complete firmware updates at will, Google’s more extensive, more diverse, and less directly controlled ecosystem requires a different approach.

Google Play Services

Almost every Android phone sold in the West comes with Google Play Services — it’s an integral part of the package of mobile apps preloaded onto Google Android phones, and Google can silently update it in the background. But Play Services is far more powerful than your average Android app. That’s because it’s a system app, which means it has the keys to the castle, allowing for features like a remote wipe of your phone if it’s lost or stolen. (For that reason, your manufacturer must first load system apps onto the device. They can’t be installed from scratch like a standard app.)

Current versions of Google Play Services have been supported back to Android 5.0 Lollipop, released in 2014. The last version of Android to lose Play Services support was the 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, released in 2011 and retired in 2018. For “current” Google Play Services support, the timeframes we’re discussing here are much longer than most people will ever keep a smartphone.

More: A Google Mobile Services primer

Play Services also does many other things, allowing developers to integrate services like Google Pay and Google Single sign-on into their apps. But let’s zero in on the security implications: This kind of system app, constantly kept up-to-date in the background, supported on devices released seven or more years ago, and with permission to do anything, is a powerful tool in Google’s Android security arsenal.

Play Services is always up-to-date, even on old Android phones, protecting against malware.

Google Play Protect, for instance, is part of Play Services. This lets Google check the apps on your phone for malware, whether or not they’re downloaded from the Play Store. Because Play Services is a system app, Play Protect can nuke malicious apps before they have a chance to do any harm. And because Play Services is constantly updated, these defenses can be kept up to date in the background many years after your device receives its last proper firmware update. It’s a way for older devices to be protected against malicious apps, even if they use software vulnerabilities still technically present in the underlying OS.

This can give devices like the now geriatric Samsung Galaxy S4, released in 2013, a decent level of protection against vulnerabilities in its Android 5-based firmware.

A great example of the power of Google Play Services can be seen in the Covid-19 Exposure Notification System. Google was able to build this system with Apple and, thanks to Play Services, automatically deploy it to every Android phone running 5.0 Lollipop or above without updating its firmware.

When scary software vulnerabilities emerged, as happened in 2014 with the “Fake ID” bug, Google immediately updated its “Verify Apps” feature (a precursor to Google Play Protect) to identify offending apps. This allowed the vulnerability to be nipped in the bud long before manufacturers rolled out firmware updates addressing the underlying bug.

But of course, not having vulnerabilities in the first place is better than just preventing them from being exploited. In recent years, Google has tackled Android’s long-standing firmware update problem in several ways: Firstly, by making Android more modular and working more closely with manufacturers during Android’s development. And secondly, by clearly tying a date to Android’s level of security and writing minimum support requirements into its contracts with phone makers.

Android goes modular

Android was a significant monolithic entity a decade ago that had to be updated simultaneously. Changes to system-level things like media codecs or networking — or even the built-in web browser or dialer app — could only be done via a full firmware update, with all the hassle that entails. (First, Google pushes new code out, then the manufacturer turns it into a device-specific firmware update, then the carrier has to sign off.) And as mentioned earlier, that’s slow and pretty bad for security if an exploitable bug is discovered.

Since then, Google has made Android more modular, making it quicker and easier for companies to push out OS updates. And more recently, it’s now possible to update chunks of the Android OS without a complete firmware upgrade. This makes it possible for Google and phone manufacturers to respond fast to fix security issues in certain parts of the OS.

Google’s earliest steps in this direction involved breaking certain apps and components out of the firmware and allowing them to be updated via the Google Play Store. The best examples are Google Chrome and the Android WebView component — used for web content inside Android apps. Updating these independently of the firmware lets Google fix browser engine bugs that could be exploited by malicious web pages and get them rolled out to the entire Android ecosystem in hours instead of months.

Recent versions of Android get rid of the update middleman.

In 2017’s Android 8.0 Oreo release, Google stepped up a gear with “Project Treble.” This effort was to disentangle the low-level bits of Android from chipset manufacturers like Qualcomm from the rest of the operating system and create a more modular OS that could be updated quickly. With hardware companies able to separate their customizations from the core OS, the idea was that firmware updates could be pushed out more rapidly and with less technical legwork. Project Treble isn’t something you’ll notice running on your device, but it could be why the Android phone you bought in 2018 got OS updates quicker than the one you purchased in 2016. And quicker updates, of course, are better for security.

The next step in modularizing Android came in Android 10, with “Project Mainline,” — known today as “Google Play System Updates.” Mainline is all about sidestepping the existing over-the-air firmware process and bundling Android parts into new modules that could be updated directly by Google or your phone’s manufacturer. Mainline grew in Android 11 with updateable modules for more Android system bits like Wi-Fi, tethering, and neural networking components. And Android 12’ll also cover ART (the Android runtime), bringing more security benefits. As AC’s Jerry Hildenbrand explains in a recent editorial:

In Android 12, any security exploits found in how the Android runtime works could be quickly and easily fixed across the entire Android ecosystem.

To understand how Android’s security has improved so much since the early 2010s, looking at one of the past decade’s major Android security scares — 2015’s “Stagefright” bug is interesting. Stagefright involved an exploit in the Android component in processing media files, allowing a specially modified video file to run malicious code on Android phones.

One of the scariest Android security bugs of 2015 would be wholly neutered by Project Mainline. While there’s no evidence that Stagefright was ever widely used in real-world malware — probably because other security precautions in Android made it very difficult to take advantage of — it was nevertheless big news at the time. In 2015 there was no single silver bullet for Stagefright. Unlike an app-based vulnerability, Google Play Protect couldn’t stop lousy media files from potentially compromising your phone. The only real fix was to wait for a firmware update and hope for the best.

But it would be trivial to address if something like Stagefright was discovered in 2021. Google would prepare a Project Mainline update for the media playback library and instantly fix the bug across Android 10 and up devices. With more Android being modularized in each new version of the OS, it’s far less likely that Google will be caught out by an exploit like Stagefright in the future.

Android security patches

As a direct result of the Stagefright bug, in late 2015, Google introduced Android security patch levels, tying a precise date to the level of security in any Google-approved Android firmware. The extra visibility of the security patch shone a light on the over and under-achieving Android manufacturers while also giving peace of mind when new updates arrive. New patches are issued monthly, addressing recently discovered security issues, with device manufacturers giving a one-to-two-month lead time to get security patches pushed out to devices.

Two years of security updates are now contractually required by Google.

More recently, Google has started writing minimum security support levels into its contracts with Android manufacturers. The Verge reported 2018 that phone makers would need to guarantee at least two years of security updates for new phones, with at least four security updates within the first year. By the standards of most high-end phones, that’s a pretty basic level of support. But that’s just what it is: a bare minimum. Many others at the high end go much further, including Samsung’ss recent promise of four years of security updates for significant Galaxy phones.

A decade of progress

Android’s security today is robust between faster Android updates thanks to Project Treble, more accessible updates to parts of the OS without a complete firmware upgrade, longer support lifespans, and a solid last defense against malware from Google Play Protect. Today’s most highly publicized mobile security risks come from phishing attacks instead of malicious apps or media files. Or in other words, as Android security is strengthened, the bad guys are increasingly opting to trick you, not your phone.

That’s not to say the Android security and platform updates situation is perfect. In an ideal world, Google would be just as elegant as Apple when patching security vulnerabilities. We’re getting there with Project Mainline, but it’ll take time for the benefits of the new Mainline modules added in Android 11 and Android 12 to trickle out to the Android ecosystem. Google Play Protect is as good as it utilizes app-based Google Play Protect malware instead of other exploits. And I would argue that the contractual minimum of one security update every three months doesn’t go far enough. (Case in point: The dismal update prospects of many cheaper OnePlus Nord phones.)

The platform has come a long way since 2011, and the past decade of progress means Android is well-positioned to see off the software threats of the future. At the same time, in 2021, the old stereotype of Android being rife with malware and firmware exploits is further from the truth than ever. And direct comparisons with the iOS update model overlook essential parts of Google Android like Play Services and Project Mainline.

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