Improved Security Or Less Freedom? APK Updates
Earlier this week a small change rolled out to the Google Play Store. It’s one that you likely won’t even notice, but for those who have it’s tough to decide whether the shift is good or bad. What change? Just a small string of metadata for apps.
Google is adding a security string of metadata to all Android APKs (the file format android apps are stored in). This string will come along with the usual app and be used to verify that apps are distributed through the Play Store or another approved channel.
The reasoning is (of course) for security purposes. Users will be able to verify that the apps their downloading aren’t malicious apps seeking to wreak havoc on your system. There are plenty of apps that have posed as secure looking every-day apps when in reality they were doing other things under the hood (such as mining bitcoin). This new metadata will supposedly help catch apps like this and ensure that any apps users are downloading are coming from a safe place.
We’ve talked before about how android apps are pretty secure through their information silos. Apps must use a content provider/resolver to access information from one another, and in order to get access to your serious information (contacts, messages, pictures) apps are required to request permissions that must be explicitly granted by the phone’s owner. That being said it’s still not a good idea to go around downloading every app you can just for the heck of it. Security should not encourage reckless behavior.
So what’s the issue?
So why the controversy? If this new string of data will help keep our phones more secure why could people be opposed to it? Well the new string is essentially DRM (Digital Rights Management). As with media services, there’s potential for companies to abuse DRM to choose how and when you use their product.
Let’s say for example you download an app and like it how it is. A new update comes out and you hear horrendous things about it like it makes an ad pop up every 5 seconds (a terrible marketing strategy). Naturally you would try to hold off on updating to this new version as long as possible. Well with DRM it might be difficult/impossible to tinker with the app to remove ads, and a developer could potentially force you to update to the new version by altering the metadata. It’s a win for mobile app security, but it also invites misuse.
It’s not easy to say if this is a big deal or simply a step in the right direction for security, but it also hasn’t been in the limelight for long. What are your thoughts on this change to coming apps? Let us know in the comments below!