Google follows Apple's lead with Android app security screening

Android 4.2 'Jelly Bean' uses trusted third-party to vet apps, unlike Apple's own internal review of App Store apps

Google's new app scanner in Android 4.2 Jelly Bean moves the platform closer to Apple's model of vetting software before it is made available to mobile device users, a security expert says.

Debate erupts over Android malware dangers

Google isn't expected to copy Apple's model of controlling the distribution of all iPhone and iPad apps through a single app marketplace. However, the latest security feature acknowledges that most mobile device users want a trusted third party to determine whether an app has malicious code, or has hidden behaviors that are a privacy risk, said Gartner analyst John Pescatore.

"What Google has done here is getting a little bit closer to Apple's model, which makes sense. It's what users want," Pescatore said Tuesday. "Users want more protection."

The new security system, built into the Android platform, gives users the option of letting Google scan an app downloaded from markets other than Google Play. The service, which can be turned off at anytime, takes a snapshot of the app and compares it against a database of known applications, warning the user if the download contains anything suspicious.

In February, Google confirmed that it was automatically scanning applications submitted to its own store. In taking the service to the device, Google diminishes the need for having anti-virus software, which Gartner has advised against for years.

"Gartner's position for 10 years has been that anti-viral software on mobile devices makes no sense," Pescatore said. "It's not going to be effective and mechanisms like the Apple App Store or Google Play are much more effective than people paying money to try to put anti-viral software on these phones."

Not surprisingly, mobile security vendors disagree with Gartner's position. "Traditionally, it's not always great to rely on a sole source provider," Lee Cocking, vice president of corporate strategy for Fixmo, said in an email. "In other words, having an independent company checking Google's OS is better than Google checking their own OS." 

Nevertheless, Cocking supported Google's efforts and believes all makers of Android devices should provide at least a "bare minimum of protection for users who don't install additional security."

Whatever security mechanism is used, there's little doubt that malware disguised as games or productivity apps pose a serious risk to users. The existence of many Android app stores increases the likelihood of downloading malware.

In the third quarter of this year, TrendMicro found a nearly sixfold increase in the number of Android malware. The vendor also reported a significant rise in the amount of aggressive mobile adware designed to collect personal data in violation of user privacy.

[See also: California's mobile privacy crackdown praised]

For businesses, Gartner recommends skipping antivirus software in favor of technology that manages the use of applications and corporate data on mobile devices.

"Whether it's [Apple] iOS or Android, what businesses do need are ways of saying, 'How can we be sure sensitive company data doesn't get on these devices and then goes off of these devices," Pescatore said.

Google may boost security further on Android, but the company is likely to stop short of taking full control. Instead, it is expected to continue to offer options, while letting the user make the final decision.

"I think they'll always be on the side that if users want to harm themselves, we'll let them," Pescatore said.

This story, "Google follows Apple's lead with Android app security screening" was originally published by CSO.

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