App Stores Should Cooperate to Improve Smartphone Security
An EU agency wants a cross-industry system for grading application security
By Mikael Ricknäs
September 13, 2011 — IDG News Service — App store vendors need to collaborate more closely to keep smartphone users safe, including putting together a system for grading application security, according to E.U. cybersecurity agency ENISA.
On Tuesday, the agency published a report detailing defense measures it feels app store owners need to implement to keep users safe.
These measures include a new security focused reputation mechanism, which would accumulate views and grades on how a developer or application has performed from a security point of view. Today, there is no way for a user to find out how secure an application is and to what extent it has been checked for vulnerabilities, which is a concern, according to ENISA. Instead users rate applications for their functionality, ENISA wrote.
Implementing such a rating would also motivate developers to think more about security.
"Currently, there is no incentive for, for example, Android developers to invest a lot in security, because their apps will be listed with less secure apps that were developed in one day by amateurs," said Marnix Dekker, who co-authored the report.
The mechanism would work better if it was implemented across many app stores, which means vendors would have to cooperate. Today, there is no collaboration across the security teams at the different app stores, according to Dekker.
"That is counterproductive and not very efficient," said Dekker.
Working together they should also try to come up with a more common way of handling patches, Dekker said.
The report doesn't grade the security in existing app stores, Instead it details what measures should be in place to keep them as secure as possible. Besides a system for grading security it highlights the need for app reviews and the possibility to remove applications, using a so-called kill-switch.
"We see a number of new app stores being set up, and just because they are not that popular or have a large market share we still think it is important that security is addressed in the same rigorous way as has been done by the bigger app stores," said Dekker.
The device security is also key, including how applications run on the smartphone, preferably in a sandbox with limited privileges, and from where they can be installed.
Smartphone vendors have to find a balance between restricting software downloads from untrusted sources and being overly restrictive, which could encourage users to jail-break and possibly introduce higher risks, according to the report.
This is another area that could benefit from vendors cooperating.
Today, users that want to download applications from Amazon's Appstore for Android have to allow untrusted sources, which could allow a hacker to send an e-mail to a user saying that they should download this cool app, and then take over the phone, according to Dekker. Here users would benefit if Amazon as well as other legitimate third party app stores and Google could come together, he said.
Smartphone security is getting more and more attention from vendors and authorities. In June, Symantec published a report comparing the security in compares Android and iOS security.
The latter won the most categories, but neither was very good at protecting against phishing, Symantec said.