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Android Ecosystem Security Transparency Report is a wary first step

Reading through Google’s first quarterly Android Ecosystem Security Transparency Report feels like a mix of missed opportunities and déjà vu all over again.

Much of what is in the new Android ecosystem security report is data that has been part of Google’s annual Android Security Year in Review report, including the rates of potentially harmful applications (PHAs) on devices with and without sideloaded apps — spoiler alert: sideloading is much riskier — and rates of PHAs by geographical region. Surprisingly, the rates in Russia are lower than in the U.S.

The only other data in the Android ecosystem security report shows the percentage of devices with at least one PHA installed based on Android version. This is new data shows that the newer the version of Android, the less likely it is a device will have a PHA installed.

However, this also hints at the data Google didn’t include in the report, like how well specific hardware partners have done in updating devices to those newer versions of Android. Considering that Android 7.x Nougat is the most common version of the OS in the wild at 28.2% and the latest version 9.0 Pie hasn’t even cracked the 0.1% marker to be included in Google’s platform numbers, the smart money says OEM updating stats wouldn’t be too impressive.

There’s also the matter of Android security updates and the data around which hardware partners are best at pushing them out. Dave Kleidermacher, head of Android security and privacy, said at the Google I/O developer conference in May 2018 that the company was tracking which partners were best at pushing security updates and that it was considering adding hardware support details to future Android Ecosystem Security Transparency Reports. More recently, Google added stipulations to its OEM contracts mandating at least four security updates per year on Android devices.

It’s unclear why Google ultimately didn’t include this data in the report on Android ecosystem security, but Google has been hesitant to call out hardware partners for slow updates in the past. In addition to new requirements in Android partner contracts regarding security updates, there have been rules stating hardware partners need to update any device to the latest version of Android released in the first 18 months after a device launch. However, it has always been unclear what the punishment would be for breaking those rules. Presumably, it would be a ban on access to Google Play services, the Play Store and Google Apps, but there have never been reports of those penalties being enforced.

Google has taken steps to make Android updates easier, including Project Treble in Android 8.0 Oreo, which effectively decoupled the Android system from any software differentiation added by a hardware partner. But, since Android 7.x is still the most common version in the wild, it doesn’t appear as though that work has yielded much fruit yet.

Adding OS and security update stats to the Android Ecosystem Security Transparency Report could go a long way towards shaming OEMs into being better and giving consumers more information with which to make purchasing decisions, but time will tell if Google ever goes so far as to name OEMs specifically.

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