Enterprises warned against first true Google phone, Moto X
Ease-of-use in the Moto X, such as always-ready microphone for voice actions, likely to tickle consumers -- but haunts security pros
By Antone Gonsalves
August 02, 2013 — CSO — The security nightmare corporations face with the bring-your-own-device (BYOD) trend just got worse with the release of Google's new Moto X.
With the Android smartphone unveiled Thursday, Google is hoping to lure customers with a personal digital assistant that's easy to use and can guess what information or services people want by reading emails and schedules and tracking search queries. While all this data collection may make the device invaluable, it also should make corporations very nervous.
"It's engineers gone wild," said Roger Entner, principal analyst for Recon Analytics. "The engineers are [saying], 'Oh, wouldn't this be a really cool idea,' but don't think through the repercussions."
The ease-of-use features in the Moto X, designed and built by Google-owned Motorola, are likely to tickle consumers while haunting IT security pros. First is the always-on microphone, which a person can use to activate the device using trigger words, such as "OK Google Now," to make phone calls or access services and features. The feature is possible through a special, low-power chip developed by Motorola that keeps the microphone on without draining the battery.
The always-ready microphone, coupled with the massive amount of data collection, makes the Moto X a valuable target for cybercriminals and cyberspies, who are already heavily focused on developing malware to take control of Android devices.
Security researchers say tools for building and distributing Android malware are getting progressively better in the criminal underground. In 2012, the number of Android malware rose more than 2,500% and accounted for 95% of mobile threats on the Internet, according to Cisco's 2013 Annual Security Report.
Malware exists today that can take control of an Android device, if a user can be tricked into installing in infected app from an online store or clicking a malicious link on a text message.
"Once that happens, all bets are off, and all these lovely sensors become a continuous sound and video information-gathering tool on your designated target," said Kurt Stammberger, vice president of market development for mobile security vendor Mocana.
Motorola will also provide hands-free authentication with the Moto X, through a plastic token that can be clipped onto clothing that will communicate via near-field communication (NFC). As long as the token is a few feet away, a password won't be necessary to unlock the device. The token will be sold separately, reports said.
"I'm sure someone at Black Hat or Defcon will figure out a workaround," William Stofega, analyst for IDC, said, referrring to the two security conferences now under way in Las Vegas.
The Moto X is not the first Android phone to have these security-troubling features. The Motorola Droid that debuted last week also has them, industry observers say.
However, Google has already proclaimed the Moto X its flagship smartphone and Motorola Mobility is reported to be set to spend as much as $500 million in marketing. Such a push gives the phone a better chance of becoming a success.
Google's strategy of making its smartphones as useful as possible is what's needed to drive sales in the consumer market. A phone that can automatically notify the user about traffic conditions before heading to a meeting is certain to please many people.
But the data collection necessary to provide such services, as well as the microphone, camera and NFC needed for ease of use, are making it increasingly difficult for companies to have a liberal BYOD policy.
"Bring-your-own-device is a security nightmare in general," Entner said.
Whether an employee can use their own device to access the corporate network should depend on their job, Stofega said. A chief research officer may not want his location known or to communicate with staff and bosses without strict security controls.
"At some point [companies] have to have control at some level of the person and also the intellectual capital that's invested in that person," Stofega said.
In the meantime, companies are better offer steering away from the Moto X for now, experts say.
"I would not recommend the Moto X to corporate clients until we have a really good understanding and assurances from Google and Motorola on how to combat potential mischief being done with these capabilities," Entner said.
Read more about wireless/mobile security in CSOonline's Wireless/Mobile Security section.