Google Android Flaw Reopens Open Source Security Debate

A security flaw in Google's new Android operating system discovered recently by independent researchers further underscores the security debate between open source and proprietary software.

On Monday, Charlie Miller, Mark Daniel and Jake Honoroff of Independent Security Evaluators said they have identified and exploited a security vulnerability in Android. In their findings, they said the first commercial phones using Android -- in this case, T-Mobile's G1 -- are "being shipped with the vulnerability present and may pose a security risk to their users until an update becomes available."

The researchers opted not to disclose the flaw's details until a fix can be issued. However, they said that a successful exploit could allow an attacker to retrieve all stored information in the victim's browser.

Questions of whether the copyrighted OS is safer, or if this should be considered a setback to Google's expansion into non-search-related products and services, should be answered on a case-by-case basis, said Derek Manky, a security researcher for Fortinet.

"In general, today's threat-scape hosts threats [that] are mostly targeted toward Windows as opposed to Linux," Manky said. "So, in terms of volume and market share of exploits, proprietary OSes would still be at higher risk. Keep in mind that this isn't just the operating system itself. Most threats spawn from the code applications which are hosted on that operating system, i.e., Windows and ActiveX controls."

Manky added that one upside to this discovery is that vulnerabilities in open source OSes may be identified quicker, because available source code makes it easy to search for potential weaknesses.

Google's Second Security False Start?
This same sort of controversy morphed into a larger discourse about Google vs. Microsoft -- as well as open source vs. closed source programs -- last month when a flaw was found in Google's much-heralded Chrome browser. In that instance, Chrome, which is partly based on open source software components used in Mozilla's Firefox and Apple's WebKit, had flaws of its own that were remedied by both Firefox and Apple.

For its part, Android is based on more than 80 different open source packages. The researchers who discovered the bug said the vulnerability arose from the fact that Google didn't use the most up-to-date versions of all these packages (which admittedly can be difficult, given the nature of real-time development in the open source community). This means that while the Android vulnerability may have been known and even fixed in the software packages that come bundled with the T-Mobile G1 phone, on the back-end Google still deployed an older and still-exposed edition of the OS.

Experts like Fortinet's Manky chalk it up to growing pains for the developers of Google's nascent programs.

"I would say the largest difference here is that we are dealing with a new mobile platform -- the source for Android was only recently revealed -- that is, open source," he said. "What makes this threat unique is that it was 'sought out' based off previous knowledge, since it was a new product using an existing source tree, which you don't have with Windows-based products."

About the Author

Jabulani Leffall is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in the Financial Times of London, Investor's Business Daily, The Economist and CFO Magazine, among others.