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Researchers customize Android for sophisticated smartphone lockdown

Bob Brown | Oct. 21, 2011
Virginia Tech researchers for the past month and a half have been working to customize Google’s Android software to lock down smartphones so that sensitive data isn’t exposed once a user leaves approved locations.

Additionally, we have created a data jail to secure email, SMS, contacts, etc. -- secure data can be loaded remotely from servers on entry into a room and automatically wiped without trace (it never touches disk) on exit from the room, meaning that if the phone is shut off the data is erased. These applications can simply integrate the secure data with the unsecure, thereby requiring no change to the user workflow. For example, secure emails show up in the standard email application, listed along with unsecure emails -- the only change is a tiny lock icon indicating each secure email. The users interact with the application as normal.  

What was the key breakthrough in developing this technology?

Adding interceptors to the Android services and the creation of a custom "data jail" technology to ensure that app doesn't get transferred to another process or stored on disk. They enable us to allow or reject thousands of user behaviors on Android, while the device is running. Additionally, the policy for allowed/disallowed behaviors can be pushed from a remote server and changed while the phone is executing, which does not interrupt the user's current workflow at all.  How does this technology compare to existing commercial offerings?

There are a number of 'remote data wipe' applications available. Most only allow either a) a wipe of the entire phone, or b) the password to be changed remotely. As far as we know, there is no other option that allows policy control at the fine-grained levels we have created or creating physical boundaries (e.g., rooms) that define where data can be accessed. Commercial applications only allow control of 50 or so policies, which are typically centered around controlling the Android system settings. Our work goes much farther than that, allowing extremely fine grained control of many parts of Android beyond just system settings. Additionally, we are the only solution we know of that allows integration with secure data, such as contacts and email, while ensuring that the sensitive data remains in memory and no traces of that data remain on a device.  

Got any companies sniffing around yet to use this commercially?

We are working with various defense contractors and are planning to meet with Google Federal soon. 

Overall, how big of a concern do you think smartphone security is these days/going forward?

Smartphone security is a huge concern. These devices enable a faster, more efficient communication with the world, but as users are adding features to their smartphones (calendars, email, contacts, social network logins, bank applications) they are making that device more of a security risk if it is lost or stolen. As smartphones become more prevalent, we have been seeing digital attacks targeted at every major platform. Smartphones are incredibly useful as devices, but trading all personal security for that usefulness is not the choice that consumers should be forced into.  

Anything else worth noting?

The source code for the project will likely be available near the end of this year. If we have time, we will integrate our work with the latest Ice Cream Sandwich version of Android.



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