Google Gets to the Root of the Problem
It was this time last year — almost to the day — that Google revealed their plan for gaining a share of the ever-so-profitable mobile phone market. Though we all thought it would be a true gPhone — designed, manufactured, and marketed entirely by Google — we were nonetheless excited and intrigued by what was actually revealed: Android, an Open Source, Linux-based mobile OS.
The path through Android's development to the eventual release of the first "Googlephone" — the T-Mobile G1 — had its fair share of bumps and potholes. Post-release is proving to be rather rough as well: A high-profile vulnerability discovered in late October and patched last week brought the company criticism not only over the flaw itself, which involved a long-since-patched vulnerability, but more so over Google's response to security-researcher Charles Miller's public disclosure of the vulnerability. Now, a new vulnerability has come to light and has drawn the search giant even more fire.
The latest flaw — which is in the process of being patched via an over-the-air and reportedly involuntary update — was disclosed last week in what was characterized as a "jailbreak" of the G1. At first glance, most sources believed the glitch to allow as-needed root access to the phone, providing users with the opportunity to bypass limitations on the phone and run applications outside the "sandbox" designed by Android's developers. However, it was quickly discovered that the issue was not a "jailbreak," but rather a serious flaw in Android's code which caused a root shell to run invisibly on the device — a root shell which received and executed every keystroke entered on the device. rm -rf, anyone?
Though obviously embarrassing for Google, the bug is not out-of-the-ordinary, and was likely a debugging hack that failed to find its way out of the production release. Some — presumably before learning the full extent of the vulnerability — were quick to criticize Google, comparing the company's actions to Apple's ironfisted control of the iPhone. Questions were raised over Google's commitment to keeping Android an Open Source project — questions which echo, though in a radically different context, ones raised just a few months ago.
This time at least, it appears Google's motives lacked sinister overtones of corporate control — but who knows what evil lurks in the code of Android?
Justin Ryan is a Contributing Editor for Linux Journal.