The Security Implications of Custom Android ROMs

By Jon Janego

As most smartphone geeks like myself are undoubtedly aware, the latest phone in Google’s Nexus line, the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, was released for Verizon Wireless last week.  Mine just arrived last night, and it’s fantastic (although huge!)

The Nexus line of devices are unique among Android phones in that they are essentially a commercial line of the internal development phones used at Google.  As such, they are designed to allow easy installation of custom firmware.  This makes them especially popular with the robust Android “modding” community, which develops customized firmware that can be run on Android devices that extend the functionality beyond what is initially provided by the handset manufacturer.

Made for Modders

The Galaxy Nexus appears to be the biggest Nexus phone launch in Google’s history, initially being offered by the largest carrier in the US, Verizon, and the second-largest carrier in the UK, O2.The popularity of the Galaxy Nexus will likely draw a large number of people into the Android modding community because of the low barrier to entry that it presents.  Already, on the popular Android blog Droid Life, there is an article about unlocking the Galaxy Nexus’ bootloader, which allows for installation of custom firmware, that has over 400 comments, and another post on the same blog about “rooting” the phone has well over 300 comments.The Android customization community is a large and robust one.  However, like many open-source and community-based development projects, the majority of users just want the project to “work”, and have little-to-no interest in viewing the source code or having a deep understanding of how it functions.  Despite user bases sometimes numbering in the millions, a relatively small group of developers do most of the creation and distribution of the software.

The problem of software authenticity has been encountered before by the linux community, and over the last decade, that community has developed distribution methods such as centralized Debian APT repositories that provide some degree of certainty over what the end user is actually installing on their computer.  Additionally, many linux users still download the source code for projects and compile them locally on their computer.  Within the Android modding community, neither of these options have been implemented with the same level of maturity that linux has seen.  The more popular aftermarket firmware, or “ROMs”, such as CyanogenMod, are distributed by more accountable means, providing MD5 checksums for the files and a clear distribution network.  However, often, Android customization software is provided through links to anonymous file-sharing sites such as Mediafire and Megaupload.  This creates the opportunity to trick a user into installing malicious files.

A Ripe Target

There has already been at least one documented case of malware targeting custom Android ROMs, a trojan affected devices in the Chinese market.  With the popularity of the Galaxy Nexus, and the continued interest in Android customization community, this could become an attack vector that is more and more appealing to malware authors.  And the fact that majority of customized Android software is distributed without the usage of the Android Market, users do not have the additional means of protection that the Market provides, namely the “kill-switch” for apps that Google has flagged as malicious that were installed via the Android Market.

So how can end users protect themselves, while still participating in the Android customization community?  The most important thing that any technology user can do is to educate themselves about the software they install.  Security researcher Dan Rosenberg wrote an excellent blog post summarizing exactly how “rooting” works, which is a concept that many users want, but fewer truly understand.  Too often, users are tempted to just install the attachment that someone on a forum or blog says “works”, without question.  Also, users should avoid downloading and installing software from sources that are anonymous or unaccountable.  Instead, download from the primary source of the software developer, and validate the MD5 checksum of the file before installing it.  And often, many of the files shared on forums or anonymous upload sites are those provided directly Google or the phone manufacturers themselves.  Instead of downloading from the anonymous links, download these files from Google directly.

The Android community is already beginning to tackle these problems.  The popular ROM manager ClockworkMod is attempting to become an authoritative source for aftermarket software.  They coordinate with the developers of custom software and allow users to install files directly from the developers’ Git repositories.  However, this is still reliant upon the goodwill and trustworthiness of the developers.  ClockworkMod does not perform any code review of the ROMs that they aggregate, and while they may be able to de-list one that has a security vulnerability, there is still not a way to automatically remove the software from installed devices.

Looking Forward

In the future, I hope that the popular Android blogs such as Droid-Life, and forums such as XDA-developers will begin linking to central, trusted software repositories, rather than the anonymous file sharing sites or forum post attachments that are currently commonly used.  In the long-term, I would not be surprised to see an even more formalized system be implemented by the Android community, similar to the Debian APT repositories, but there is still some time to go.  Until then, Android users interested in customizing their devices should try and stay educated about their technology, and be very skeptical of any software that they install.  While the mobile carriers have recently had some credibility issues with the CarrierIQ fiasco, they are for the most part held far more accountable than any custom ROM developer will ever be.  Given the sensitivity of the data stored on mobile devices, a user should think very closely about what they are willing to install onto it.  As for me, I have already unlocked the bootloader to my Nexus Galaxy, but will probably refrain from installing any custom third-party ROMs until I repurpose it as a research device, at least another year or two down the road.  But the draw of the enhanced features and controls that the custom ROMs provide will likely lead many users down that path.  The integrity of your data ultimately resides with you, so I hope that everyone carefully weighs their decision to install new firmware onto their most sensitive and personal piece of technology.  Be careful out there!