Google announces changes to Android Market security

android virusWhen IT security firm Juniper Networks said last November that the presence of malware targeting devices running Android had surged by 472 percent in four months, many owners of such devices must have taken a long hard look at their smartphone or tablet and wondered what on earth was contained within.

In response to growing concerns about malware on Android devices, the folks behind Google’s mobile operating system are of course keen to keep on top of the situation and prevent security issues from running out of control and consequently damaging the reputation of the fast-growing platform.

As part of its ongoing strategy to deal with such issues, Hiroshi Lockheimer, Android’s VP of Engineering, said in a post on the Google Mobile blog on Thursday that it had recently beefed up the operating system’s security tools.

“As the platform continues to grow, we’re focused on bringing you the best new features and innovations – including in security,” he said in the post.

Lockheimer revealed information about a relatively new service, codenamed Bouncer, which scans Android Market in search of malicious software. An advantage of Bouncer, he said, is that it runs in the background “without disrupting the user experience of Android Market or requiring developers to go through an application approval process.”

Bouncer is designed to analyze new apps uploaded to Android Market by developers, looking for malicious software containing malware, spyware and trojans. Such apps could be used to steal personal data from a user, which could then be sold to spammers or used for more sinister purposes.

According to Lockheimer’s post, Bouncer was introduced at some point in the latter half of last year. So far the results appear to be promising, with Lockheimer claiming that between the first and second halves of last year, there was a 40 percent drop in the number of potentially-malicious downloads from Google’s Android Market app store.

Bad People

“While it’s not possible to prevent bad people from building malware, the most important measurement is whether those bad applications are being installed from Android Market – and we know the rate is declining significantly,” Lockheimer said in an attempt to reassure Android users concerned about malware.

In the post, he also highlighted existing features of Android that work to limit malware disruption. These include sandboxing, where a virtual wall is placed between various software on a device, preventing rogue apps from taking data from legitimate apps.

Permissions is another Android function that gives people more control over software, where users can decide what information on their mobile device can be accessed by a newly downloaded app. For example, it might request access to your contact list, but if that sounds unreasonable or a little strange (for a recipe app?), you can reject the request or simply uninstall the app.

The Android operating system has long suffered from accusations that it’s too easy for rogue developers to put malware-laden apps into Android Market. While Apple has a dedicated team checking apps for malware before they’re allowed to appear in its App Store, Google has no such setup, relying solely on analytical tools such as the recently introduced Bouncer, which run after the app has been uploaded to the app store by its developer—by which time, of course, many users may have already downloaded it.

“No security approach is foolproof, and added scrutiny can often lead to important improvements,” Lockheimer said at the end of his post. “Our systems are getting better at detecting and eliminating malware every day, and we continue to invite the community to work with us to keep Android safe.”