Software

Security-Enhanced Android: NSA Edition


Security-Enhanced Android: NSA Edition

Illustration by 731

(Corrects Jim Zemlin's name)

Tech giants listed as part of the National Security Agency’s Prism spying program have gone to some lengths to convince the world they aren’t in bed with the U.S. government. Google (GOOG) has filed a request with the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court asking permission to disclose more information about the government’s data requests. So there’s a certain irony that NSA programmers are now refining code that Google has approved for the company’s mobile operating system, Android. Google spokeswoman Gina Scigliano confirms that the company has already inserted some of the NSA’s programming in Android OS. “All Android code and contributors are publicly available for review at source.android.com,” Scigliano says, declining to comment further.

Through its open-source Android project, Google has agreed to incorporate code, first developed by the agency in 2011, into future versions of its mobile operating system, which according to market researcher IDC runs on three-quarters of the smartphones shipped globally in the first quarter. NSA officials say their code, known as Security Enhancements for Android, isolates apps to prevent hackers and marketers from gaining access to personal or corporate data stored on a device. Eventually all new phones, tablets, televisions, cars, and other devices that rely on Android will include NSA code, agency spokeswoman Vanee’ Vines said in an e-mailed statement. NSA researcher Stephen Smalley, who works on the program, says, “Our goal is to raise the bar in the security of commodity mobile devices.”

In a 2011 presentation obtained by Bloomberg Businessweek, Smalley listed among the benefits of the program that it’s “normally invisible to users.” The program’s top goal, according to that presentation: “Improve our understanding of Android security.”

Vines wouldn’t say whether the agency’s work on Android and other software is part of or helps with Prism. “The source code is publicly available for anyone to use, and that includes the ability to review the code line by line,” she said in her statement. Most of the NSA’s suggested additions to the operating system can already be found buried in Google’s latest release—on newer devices including Sony’s (SNE) Xperia Z, HTC’s (2498:TT) One, and Samsung Electronics’ (005930:KS) Galaxy S4. Although the features are not turned on by default, according to agency documentation, future versions will be. In May the Pentagon approved the use of smartphones and tablets that run Samsung’s mobile enterprise software, Knox, which also includes NSA programming, the company wrote in a June white paper. Sony, HTC, and Samsung declined to comment.

Apple (AAPL) does not accept source code from any government agencies for any of our operating systems or other products,” says Kristin Huguet, a spokeswoman for the company. It’s not known if any other proprietary operating systems are using NSA code. SE for Android is an offshoot of a long-running NSA project called Security-Enhanced Linux. That code was integrated a decade ago into the main version of the open-source operating system, the server platform of choice for Internet leaders including Google, Facebook (FB), and Yahoo! (YHOO). Jim Zemlin, the executive director of the Linux Foundation, says the NSA didn’t add any obvious means of eavesdropping. “This code was peer-reviewed by a lot of people,” he says.

The NSA developed a separate Android project because Google’s mobile OS required markedly different programming, according to Smalley’s 2011 presentation. Brian Honan, an information technology consultant in Dublin, says his clients in European governments and multinational corporations are worried about how vulnerable their data are when dealing with U.S. companies. The information security world had been preoccupied with Chinese hacking until recently, Honan says. “With Prism, the same accusations can be laid against the U.S. government.”

The bottom line: The NSA is quietly writing code for Google’s Android OS. Google says anyone has the right to do so.

Milian is a reporter for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.

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