Why a billion Android phones will never be safe

Android Phone
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.

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.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.


Think iPhones can’t get viruses? Our expert explains why it could happen

If your iPhone has been acting strangely, then you may be concerned about the possibility it is infected with a virus or some malware. We take a look at just how likely that is and explain why iOS is considered relatively safe.

Looking to upgrade? These are the best iPhone deals for March 2019

Apple devices can get expensive, but if you just can't live without iOS, don't despair: We've curated an up-to-date list of all of the absolute best iPhone deals available for March 2019.

Google Fi: Phones, plans, pricing, perks, and more explained

Google's wireless service, formerly Project Fi, now goes by the name of Google Fi, and it's now compatible with a majority of Android phones, as well as iPhones. Here's everything you need to know about Google Fi.

Rooting your Android device is risky. Do it right with our handy guide

Wondering whether to root your Android smartphone or stick with stock Android? Perhaps you’ve decided to do it and you just need to know how? Here, you'll find an explanation and a quick guide on how to root Android devices.

You can now listen to Google Podcasts on your desktop without the app

The Google Podcasts app is no longer entirely necessary to listen to the podcasts it offers. With a simple tweak of the sharing URL, you can listen to a Google Podcasts podcast on your desktop or laptop without the app.

The Samsung Galaxy S10 5G might be a few short weeks away from launch

Samsung has announced a whopping four new Galaxy S10 devices, from the low-cost S10e to the triple-camera S10 and S10 Plus. But it's the Galaxy S10 5G that steals the show as it's among the first 5G-ready smartphones to hit the market.

T-Mobile goes after big cable companies, pilots wireless home internet service

In a shot at big cable companies, T-Mobile is launching a new pilot program to bring an unlimited wireless LTE home internet service to up to 50,000 homes across the United States by the end of 2019.

Type away on the best iPad keyboard cases, from the Mini to the Pro

Whether you're looking to replace your laptop with a tablet or merely want to increase your typing speed, a physical iPad keyboard is the perfect companion to the iPad. Check out our top picks for every available iPad model.

Apple patent suggests Apple Watch bands could have built-in fitness indicators

Apple may be exploring ways to make Apple Watch bands a little more useful. A new patent has been filed by Apple that suggests Apple Watch bands could eventually have indicators for things like fitness goals.

Apple patents hint at improved Apple Store and unboxing experiences

It looks like Apple is working on ways to improve the Apple Store and product unboxing experiences. The company has been awarded a few patents, largely for tech that can be used in product packaging to ensure products stay charged.

Fossil made a smartwatch in 2004, and it’s part of a new brand retrospective

Fossil has been making watches for 35 years, and to celebrate the anniversary, it has a new retrospective exhibit complete with the first smartwatch it made — the Wrist Net watch from 2004.

Make some time for the best smartwatch deals for March 2019

Smartwatches make your life easier by sending alerts right on your wrist. Many also provide fitness-tracking features. So if you're ready to take the plunge into wearables and want to save money, read on for the best smartwatch deals.

Fossil is working on a smartwatch with BMW, and it’s coming next year

Fossil, the watch company that makes smartwatches under its own name and partners with other major brands too, intends to launch a smartwatch with car manufacturer BMW in the future.
Social Media

A Facebook, Instagram bug exposed millions of passwords to its employees

Facebook, Facebook Lite, and Instagram passwords weren't properly encrypted and could be viewed by employees, the company said Thursday. The network estimates millions of users were affected.