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Why a billion Android phones will never be safe

Android Phone
Image used with permission by copyright holder
If you think you’re safe from hackers or malware on an Android phone, you’re fooling yourself.

Last year, an estimated 50 million Android phones were left (and may still be) vulnerable to the Heartbleed bug, and right now a ‘Stagefright’ MMS hack has exposed nearly every single Android phone owner on planet Earth — more than 950 million devices — vulnerable to a complete takeover of their phone through a text message that they don’t even have to open. The vulnerabilities are scary, but what’s worse is that most of these phones will never get patched.

Nearly 1 billion Android devices are vulnerable to a complete takeover of their phone through a text message.

In the wake of nearly a billion phones being vulnerable to hacking, major phone makers that rely on the operating system — Samsung, Google, Sony, LG, and more — announced plans to start issuing monthly bug fixes for their phones. The news is certainly timely, but it’s not going to fix a thing. Android is the most vulnerable OS to bugs, hacks, glitches, and issues of any kind, and no update program from Samsung and LG is going to change that, regardless of what you may read.

There is a Tolkien-sized elephant of a problem with Android’s security, and it stems from the way Android is distributed and updated in the first place.  It’s impossible for Android phones to get critical updates, and that problem is not shared by iPhone or Windows.

Why your Android phone isn’t getting bug fixes

Do you own a Samsung Galaxy S5? If so, you’re one of a billion Android users around the world, and your phone is one of 24,000 different Android models that come from more than 1,300 different brands just like Samsung, according to an OpenSignal report.

Unless you’re using an iPhone, almost every smartphone you can buy runs two operating systems: Google’s Android OS and a modified user interface (UX) from one of those 1,300 brands that made the phone, the original equipment manufacturer or OEM. (Samsung is the biggest of these with a 38 percent share of all Android sales.)

Jessica Lee Star/Digital Trends

The changes OEM’s make to Android range from slight tweaks in the color of menus to massive overhauls. LG and Samsung, for example, have platoons of designers and coders who spend their lives remodeling every nook and cranny of Google’s Android.

Don’t miss: Stagefright shocks Samsung, LG, and Google into taking phone security seriously

Since companies like Samsung are unwilling to rely on the software that Google lays out, most phones come with two sets of apps, too: Google’s entire app suite, and the extra calendar, messaging, browser, and other apps from the OEM. This makes owning an Android phone unnecessarily complicated, and usually annoying for a new phone owner, who is bombarded with 60 to 90 apps when they unbox their new communication toy. Right now, it’s rare that almost any two Android phones run the exact same modified version of Android.

But it gets worse.

How an Android phone gets a software update:

  1. Google releases an update: Google releases a new version of Android every six months, and a few smaller patches in between. Google Nexus owners receive this update directly from Google. Some Nexus phones have already been patched from the Stagefright bug.
  2. OEMs release their update 3 to 6 months later: Once Google releases this major Android OS update, the 1,300 other Android phone makers begin updating their upcoming and best-selling phones to the new OS. Phones that don’t sell well may never get an update.
  3. Carriers approve that update 3 to 6 months later: Wireless carriers around the world that carry the phone demand to review the update. This stage is especially frustrating for tech-savvy users who know a patch is available, but aren’t able to get it because their wireless carrier — maybe Verizon or AT&T — hasn’t approved it yet.
  4. After 1 year, you enjoy an out-of-date update: iPhones and Nexus phones get updates within hours and days, but most Android phones never get updates, or the process takes a year because of all the middle men involved. A good chunk of Android owners never receive more than one significant update to their phone during its 2-year lifespan. This means they have an outdated look to their phone, lack new Android features, and never recieve critical security and bug fixes.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Because of this nightmare, almost 82 percent of Android phones run an OS from 2013 or before. For iPhone owners, the opposite is true: 85 percent of iPhones run iOS 8 (2014). It’s a problem that has needed to change for half a decade, but just isn’t. These beautiful graphs at OpenSignal show Android fragmentation at its worst.

Why monthly security updates won’t solve a damn thing

Assuming Samsung and others somehow manage to start reliably issuing bug fixes and security updates every month, these updates will still have to trudge through hundreds of wireless carriers (and thousands of virtual carriers), which will extend them by at least another month, if not indefinitely. It’s one thing to promise updates, but it’s another to deliver them and get people to actually download them.

Don’t miss: What is the ‘Stagefright’ hack? How to defend yourself

Only select phone models will get updates, only select carriers will issue those select updates at all, and most of those updates will come late — very late. When it comes to security, late could mean you losing the data on your phone, or having to fork over an extra $300 to $800 you don’t have to purchase a new, ‘safe’ device.

The only way Android gets better…

I applaud any attempt to increase the frequency of security and OS updates to Android phones, and I’ve been an Android user since I got the first Motorola Droid, but these security initiatives will not make most of us safer.

The only way Android will truly become a safe, up-to-date operating system for every smartphone owner is if all 800+ wireless carriers, Google, and all 1,300 OEMs hold hands and work together for the good of their customers (us). Arch rivals like LG and Samsung would need to work together and inform each other of bugs, work with Google to fix them, and all work to create an Android that is far more unified than it is today. On top of that, they’d need to be joined by the Verizon’s and AT&T’s of the world, who would need to put users ahead of profits and control. So far, we can only think of one uncarrier with that attitude.

In the Android world, it’s kill or be killed. OEMs and wireless carriers step on each other and Google’s OS to reach the pot of gold first.

There are absolutely no signs of any lovey dovey cooperation. In the Android world, it’s kill or be killed. OEMs and wireless carriers step on each other and Google’s OS to reach the pot of gold first. That’s why Apple holds 92 percent of all smartphone profits, and iPhone users are the only only ones receiving updates on time.

Unless Samsung, LG, Sony, HTC, and others start working together — and with Google — to locate and eliminate security risks or bugs across all handsets, and they strong arm wireless carriers, everyone on an Android phone may feel the pain.

Android phones are fantastic for a lot of reasons, and I’m not telling you to abandon your HTC One for an iPhone. But when you put down that $300 to $800 for a new Android phone, you should know that unless you buy a Nexus, your chance of exposure to a critical bug are high.

Android continues to suck at updates, and that puts us all at risk.

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Jeffrey Van Camp
Former Digital Trends Contributor
As DT's Deputy Editor, Jeff helps oversee editorial operations at Digital Trends. Previously, he ran the site's…
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