Sunday, April 3, 2011

Mobile Devices: Are We Repeating History?

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."        – George Santayana

During the past month or so, I have moved into the “modern” era. I stopped using my 3 year old cell phone and started using a smart phone (Droid X). During the same time, I also purchased a Barnes & Noble NookColor eBook reader. Of course, being the security geek that I am, I immediately rooted1 each of them to see what makes them tick as well as to make them more useful to me. Here are my initial security thoughts on this technology.

Since both of these mobile devices are Android based, I can't speak with any degree of experience for other devices based on Apple's iOS or Microsoft Windows, but I would be surprised if things are that much different there either.

History 101
In the early days of personal computing (and I'm collectively including all personal computers here, everything from Commodore 64 to Apple Macs, not just IBM PCs and their clones), none of these were originally designed with the concept of really being multi-user devices. Instead, it was assumed that either these early computers were either used only by a single person, or perhaps shared by the entire family with the assumption that there was no need of privacy or separation.

Jump ahead about ten years, to the mid-1990s, and by then all the major vendors who were left (basically Microsoft and Apple) realized that this was the wrong assumption. So, for example, we see in Windows 95, the concept of a login screen (if one desired to use it), but under the hood, still no real integrated multi-user concept—a legacy that lived on until Windows XP. However, by then, the “damage” was done; parents had been “trained” that only a single login was required and for their children's PCs, they would just provide one login for their son or daughter. More often than not, that user account was one that had an administrator role.

Lessons from the Past
The result, at least in most of the households that I observed, was chaos. Teenagers—who were frequently more technically adept than their parents, but lacking the general wisdom of adults—would download and install various malware-infected games, P2P software, etc. In short, personal computing platforms of many households were so mired in malware as to be rendered completely unusable.

During the ten year period from about 1995 until up 2005, I assisted numerous friends with malware removal. More often than not, the attack vector was from something that a teenage son or daughter deliberately had downloaded to share music, pictures, or videos with their friends. (Note: nothing magical happened in 2005, other than I switched almost exclusively to using Linux so I had an “excuse” when someone asked for assistance with the latest Windows OS. In reality, I simply got wise enough to graciously say “no, I won't fix your computer” without friends taking offense. I wonder if surgeons are ever asked to perform free appendectomies by their friends. ;-)

But I think that the lesson learned by Microsoft and Apple was that compartmentalizing user data by user accounts was important, not only from a privacy perspective, but also from a security stability perspective. Of course, Linux growing out of UNIX roots had the multi-user concept from the start, but in a few cases even some of the Linux distros attempted to “dumb things down” a bit (e.g., via automated login) to appeal more to the casual users more familiar with Windows and MacOS environments.

The Present
Flash forward to the present. We see mobile devices—namely smart phones and tablet PCs—that are being treated by the manufactures / distributors as single user devices.

From a vendor perspective, this makes sense...there simply is less code to develop. From a user interface, it simplifies things there as well. But remember this single user approach originally seemed acceptable, for a short while at least, for OS vendors of early personal computers. They too approached computing platforms from a single user approach, only later to realize it proving detrimental. In the long term, going back and having to redo things soon after they've originally been implemented improperly always is a disability because of the dreaded “backward compatibility curse” and the additional complexity required for the retrofit.

So a fair question to ask is “Is industry missing the mark with their assumption that these mobile devices will be exclusively used by a single individual?”. I'm willing to concede that for cell phones this may be a reasonable assumption, but based on how I've seen tablet PCs being used, I'd have to say the answer there is definitive “yes, vendors have missed the mark”. My son has already used my rooted NookColor tablet and I have a friend whose entire family shares their iPad. I don't see it being that much different in other families unless those families are sufficiently well-to-do to by each of the family members their own tablet device.

The code used to root the NookColor seems to be influenced heavily by the Motorola Xoom system, so maybe I'm jumping to conclusions here. But for the both the original B&N NookColor as well as the rooted versions, there is no concept of access by different user accounts. The closest I see to a login screen for either is a 4-digit security code and once the device is unlocked, the user is able to do anything.2 According to may friend, a similar situation exists with the iPad. It only supports one user account that connects to Apple's iTunes.

Repeating History
You might ask, why is sharing a tablet PC with your family members a problem? Well, if you are willing to risk the security of your tablet PC and all the data on it to your teenage son or daughter, it isn't. (Not to mention that a compromised tablet PC may also provide a jumping off point inside your router's firewall that allows easier access to your other computers and their data.) Most kids that I know are not too discriminating about what they might download. It's doubtful that most of them would even take the time to read through a list of permissions that an Android app is requesting let alone fully understand the implications involved. While Apple and Google do their best to prevent malware and spyware on from their respective official download sites, there are other sites that one can download iPad and Android apps from might not do this at all. And while you may never visit these sites, your kids might. (You might argue that this is not possible if your device has not been jail-breaked or rooted, and you may be correct. But this is an almost trivially accomplished feat well within the technical skills of today's youth. Furthermore, returning it to the stock OS—after one downloads and installs that favorite free warez version of Angry Birds—is also fairly easy.)

The question is why does it have to be this way? Android OS not only already supports multiple user ids, but is uses them so that each of the different apps runs using a different user account. (I can't speak as to iOS as I've not yet researched it. As for Windows OS for mobile devices, I suspect that the stock OS also supports multiple user accounts under the hood although it may not support multiple end user accounts.)

If we have learned anything over the past 30 years, it is that there are inherent dangers associated with having a user run with a single, all-powerful account. At the minimum, there should be two accounts supported and presented to end users—one an administrative account used only for installing, upgrading, and deleting apps and other systems management functions, and one a limited-user account that has no special privileges at all. Ideally, for mobile devices likely to be shared, there also ought to be separate limited user accounts at as well. With multiple limited end user accounts you won't have situations where 13 year old Bobbie makes unauthorized posts of embarrassing pictures to his 16 year old sister's Facebook page. The only alternative that I see is for families not to use the automated sign-on into social networking sites. (But convenience wins over security almost every time; recall McGraw's and Felten's “dancing pigs” comment—well, at least until Bobbie posts a picture of his sister wearing her ratty bathrobe, hair up in curlers, and face covered in acne cream. ;-)

Even more importantly, consider the idyllic vision that some mobile device moguls seem to dream about where your mobile device (usually cell phone, but perhaps small tablets as well) contains all your credit information enabling you to make automatic payments using with your mobile device through the use of a Near Field Communications (NFC) chip. We need multiple end user accounts even more there. Surely one doesn't want your children to have access to use Dad's credit cards simply by waving a mobile device near the POS device. True, one could protect such electronic payments with a PIN as well, but most would find this an inconvenience and would either likely disable it or choose the same PIN that they use for the device itself to avoid committing yet another PIN / password to memory.

The Not-Too-Distant Future
The good news is, I think manufacturers and sponsors of mobile devices still have time to get this right. Currently, I don't think that the target is lucrative enough to entice all the malware writers to switch gears and immediately begin targeting mobile devices rather than PCs and Macs. I predict this will change within a few years, especially if the vision of making e-payments from mobile devices comes sooner rather than later. So if mobile device manufacturers are going to do something, the time is short.

The bad news is there is absolutely no consumer outcry to entice this to happen. Neither do I see anyone in the security community discussing it either. So perhaps it never will change ha until consumers have suitably suffered enough from resulting security breaches to get angry. Until then, we will have to make do with a patchwork of AV and other bolt-on security solutions.

So, the question is what should we do as security professionals? Should we call this out as an issue, or am I just a misguided old fool telling people that the sky is falling?3

You decide and let me know what you think.


1 comment:

  1. I just ran across this news article on Google News that discusses a class action lawsuit filed against Apple for "child exploitation". The lawsuit alleges that Apple takes insufficient means to prevent unauthorized purchases of applications from Apple's App Store. Article on the lawsuit is here:

    Had Apple allowed for multiple iTunes accounts from their iPads perhaps they would not have been in this situation. Apple does provide some sort of parental controls in the form of a separate PIN. Guess the courts will decide if that is enough. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.