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FTC to pressure Android and the mobile industry for better security

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May 10, 2016

The U.S. FTC said earlier today that mobile carriers and device makers will soon be investigated over how slow they push important software security patches to mobile users.

The new initiative will also be jointly carried out by the FCC as well. The two federal agencies will work together to scrutinize manufacturers of phones, tablets and other mobile gear, plus U.S. phone carriers, to find out why so many users are not able to obtain their proper security updates in a timely manner.

The new program will hopefully lead to some improvement in what has become a troubling area for Android owners in particular.

Google's Play services software on Android devices can install some security fixes quietly in the background, but it's been discovered in the past year that it cannot detect critical security bugs at the lowest levels of the operating system, such as in the kernel or in the various libraries used by core apps.

Comprehensive Android security updates must be approved and distributed by the manufacturers to their devices and with carriers' approval if it's for a phone.

Google Nexus devices get their updates directly from Google, so they are different. By relying on gadget makers and carriers to approve and distribute critical low-level security fixes, some users are often left waiting for several months for high-profile vulnerabilities to be patched on their devices or simply receive no patches at all because manufacturers simply don't care.

"As consumers and businesses turn to mobile broadband to conduct ever more of their daily activities, the safety of their communications and other personal data is directly related to the security of the devices they use," the FCC and the FTC said in a statement.

"There have recently been a growing number of security vulnerabilities associated with mobile operating systems that threaten the security and integrity of a user’s device, including Stagefright in the Android operating system, which may affect almost one billion Android devices globally," the FTC asserted.

The two federal agencies are asking wireless carriers and hardware vendors to provide them with details on how they handle security updates and issue bug fixes for tablet and handset firmware.

For its part, the FCC didn't say whether any enforcement action will be taken against the carriers or vendors.

The agencies referenced the Stagefright security bug as one such example of a critical vulnerability that carriers have been slow to act on.

That security flaw has left hundreds of millions of Android devices vulnerable to remote code execution attacks, and the trend appears to be increasing in the last few months.

Source: The FTC and the FCC.

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