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Google says malware doesn't exist on Android but harmful applications do

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April 23, 2015

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In defense to its mobile operating system it has developed over the past several years, Google says that malware doesn't exist on Android, but potentially harmful applications do, and that's what people must be concerned with instead of the OS itself.

This is what Google's Android security division has been saying for a while. Lead Android engineer Adrian Ludwig told the RSA Conference in San Francisco today that spyware is also a household garbage term.

"There is so much connotation around the word malware today that internally we don't use that word anymore-- it just creates too much confusion. We now have something like 20 different subcategories of potentially harmful apps. Things like trojans, fraud and simple abuse,” he said.

“I sorely regret that we actually use the word spyware. When we say it, we mean that it grabs too much data and sends it off the device. There is a profound difference between grabbing all your SMS, and getting all your installed apps to send off to your device.”

For example, the label 'churn' is such that if Google found a spouse spying on another spouse, “we'd call it spouseware,” Ludwig said.

The Google developer has been flicking on data-monitoring switches in Android to determine the rate of security vulnerability exploitation and its exposure of data. So far, less than one percent of devices have harmful apps installed.

“That malware is rapidly increasing and the notion that most Android devices aren't protected is simply a myth,” he added.

It also seems to be a myth that rooted Android gadgets are dangerous to the enterprise as well. Ludwig did not recommend enterprises outright ban rooted devices, and said such modifications are probably not a problem for most organization's threat models anyway.

He added that while impressive software security exploits surface often enough, their use in actual attacks is rather small-- “I don't trust humanity any more than you do, but the scale of exploitation is a bit small. In the meantime it feels like we may have a chance at winning the exploitation battle in the mobile segment.”

In illustrating the low exploitation numbers, he did mention two exploits in the wild. One was leveraged less than eight times per one million devices, and the other once per million, even though 99 and 82 percent of Android users, respectively, were at risk at the time of disclosure, and that's according to stats from Bluebox.

But that didn't stop users from being concerned about security on their devices. He says a whopping 40 percent of Android users have antivirus installed, while a few security fanatics have five or more versions of the battery-sucking software installed.

Overall, the data crunching also revealed that Europeans are more likely to be attacked via the so-called 'POODLE' downgrade SSL attack, while Asia is the least.

Ludwig didn't know why that difference existed, but says it is monitoring 400 million connections a day for the attacks. “If you're doing SSL downgrades, we're waiting for you.”

Ludwig's data is pulled from sources including Google Play stats, Safe-browsing for Chrome diagnostics, the Verify Apps feature, the Android Safety Net, and telemetry from Device Manager, among other things.

Source: Google.

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