In late October, researchers at North Carolina State University alerted Google to a security flaw that could let scam artists send phony text messages to Android phones — a practice called "smishing" that can ensnare consumers in fraud.
Google's security officials replied in minutes, confirming the flaw and promising to correct it. Within days they had incorporated a fix into the latest version of the Android operating system, Jelly Bean 4.2, and made available a security update for earlier versions.
But for most Android phones, the fix never arrived. For many, it never will.
That's because it's not clear which company — Google, the smartphone makers or the wireless carriers who sell them — bears ultimate responsibility for the costly process of getting security updates to Android devices. Fixes to known security flaws can take many months to reach individual smartphones, if they arrive at all.
The problem, say security experts, has contributed to making the world's most popular mobile operating system more vulnerable than rivals to hackers, scam artists and a growing universe of malicious software.
Breaches remain more common on traditional computers than on smartphones, which have been engineered to include security features not found on desktop or laptop machines, experts say.
But outdated software can undermine such protections. If there was a major outbreak of malicious software, the fractured nature of the system for delivering updates could dramatically slow efforts to protect information carried on Android phones — including documents, passwords, contact lists, pictures, videos, location data and credit card numbers.
Risk to business high
The risks are particularly serious for businesses and government agencies, whose increasingly popular bring-your-own device policies have created new potential portals for espionage aimed at secure computer systems.
"You have potentially millions of Androids making their way into the work space, accessing confidential documents," said Christopher Soghoian, a former Federal Trade Commission technology expert who now works for the American Civil Liberties Union. "It's like a really dry forest, and it's just waiting for a match."
Google engineers designed Android to resist hackers and have continually improved it. The company also has worked to purge malicious software from its app store, called Play, minimising the risk from one possible route of infection.
"We've built the system from day one to deal with this kind of world," said Hiroshi Lockheimer, vice president of Android engineering. "The health of the Android ecosystem is really important to us."
Yet while each new generation of Android delivers improvements that close off newly discovered avenues of attack, the company has struggled to get updated software to smartphones already in the hands of consumers.
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