The Android patching problem is no secret but new research now quantifies just how terrible the system that Google designed for end-user security is, and reveals which handset makers are the worst security performers.
On the heels of the Stagefright bugs that spooked Google, Samsung and LG into promising monthly Android security updates, new research from the computer lab at the UK's University of Cambridge reveals what a massive difference it could make, particularly if other vendors followed suit and carriers played ball with the initiative.
The researchers found in a sample of 20,400 handsets that Android devices received patches on average just 1.26 times a year. Compare that to iOS 8 devices — iOS 8 uptake was at 90 percent prior to iOS 9, according to Apple’s figures — which would have received nine updates unless the user consciously declined it.
The researchers also found that on average 87.7 percent of Android devices are vulnerable to at least one of 11 known critical bugs.
In the paper “Security Metrics for the Android Ecosystem”, the researchers liken the market for Android security to a “market for lemons” — such as secondhand cars — due to handset makers having near perfect visibility into device’s security outlook while buyers are blind.
“There is information asymmetry between the manufacturer, who knows whether the device is currently secure and will receive security updates, and the customer, who does not,” the researchers note.
Put another way, Google’s 1.4 billion active Android users could have read the specs sheet and product reviews before purchasing their Android phone, but lacked comparable sources of information for security performance.
The researchers hope their method, which produces a “FUM” security score out of 10, will give individual, corporate and government buyers better visibility into what they’re in for after a purchase, as well as provide an incentive for Android OEMs to perform better.
“We define the FUM security metric to rank the performance of device manufacturers and network operators, based on their provision of updates and exposure to critical vulnerabilities,” the researchers note.
Alastair Beresford, the lead researcher behind the paper, explained that “f” in FUM is the proportion of devices free from known critical vulnerabilities; the “u” is the proportion of devices updated to the most recent version; and the “m” is the mean number of vulnerabilities the manufacturer has not fixed on any device.
The research spans bugs disclosed from 2010 to 2014 with the most recent being Fake ID and TowelRoot -- two widely reported bugs affecting Android.
The researchers also trace out the ecosystem that goes into Android, which include upstream open source projects like OpenSSL and BouncyCastle, Linux, “other projects”, Google, hardware developers, device manufacturers and network operators. Besides the 20,400 devices in the research body, it includes data on 1,460 network operators and 301 device manufacturers.
So which brands received the highest FUM score? Given that Google provides security updates directly to Nexus devices, it’s no surprise to see that it gained the highest FUM score of 5.17, well above the average 2.7 for non-Nexus devices.
After Google's Nexus devices, LG was the best performer with a FUM sure of 3.97, followed by Motorola’s 3.07 points, and Samsung wth a 2.75 score, while Sony and HTC tied with a 2.63 FUM. Other brands with a score at or below 2.35 in descending order were ASUS, "other", ALPS, Symphony and Walton.
On the device front, the Galaxy Nexus was the top scorer with 4.71 points, followed by the Nexus 4, Nexus 7, “other”, Desire HD, HTC Sensation, GT-I9100 (a Galaxy S II make), and HTC Desire S. Meanwhile, the top three best performing operators in the mix were O2 UK, T-Mobile US, Orange, and Sprint.
But after all this, whose fault is it that Android devices don’t receive updates?
While the blame is often levelled at carriers, the researchers say: “the bottleneck for the delivery of updates in the Android ecosystem rests with the manufacturers, who fail to provide updates to fix critical vulnerabilities.”Read more: Adobe’s September update fixes 23 critical flaws in Flash Player
If Android users want to offer the researchers more data they can install Cambridge University's Device Analyzer app from Google Play.
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