Archive for February, 2011

Some thoughts on android hacking and OSS

Posted by 3ricj on 13 February 2011

North American carriers are behaving like carriers do: They want to lock consumers into their service. They do this by contract and by locking-in the branding of platforms. When you merge that corporate desire of lock-in with open source software such as linux and android, hilarity ensues.

Carriers are mostly just large billing dinosaurs designed to generate profit. Along the way of maximizing profit, they end up having to build things like cellphone towers and wireless networks. Some small fraction of what they do is focus on customer lock-in. Part of the hidden licensing costs they have is to comply with the GPL. While they try to lock down devices to prohibit modification, they also have to release some of the features which perform this function. Carriers and device manufacturers tend to sue each other and other folks around. It's part of the cost of doing business and helps them maintain the desired profit.

Let's talk about hacking and vulnerabilities. Many have argued that you can model vulnerabilities based on code complexity, "quality of code" and frequency of audits. My opinion is that these things have little to nothing to do with the real number of vulnerabilities FOUND and EXPLOITED in software. If we assume that 0.1% of all end-users of software are hackers, and of those hackers 1% of them will find a vulnerability, then we can get a pretty good idea of how many vulnerabilities will be found in any given piece of software. Android and linux has suddenly been tossed under the vulnerability bus.

What does this mean to hacking? It means that one of the core lock-in methods which carriers have been trying to perform on the devices they sell to users will not be very effective. There will always be more exploits prohibiting them from maximizing their revenue. An agile industry would embrace this state of the world, and find other methods for realizing that profit. Carriers and manufacturers are not agile: They are soon to be extinct dinosaurs. We need to be careful with any creature on their deathbed, as they can lash out in every direction before fossilization.

I do not know if a carrier or manufacturer has threatened a vulnerability researcher yet. If this has not happened yet, I predict it will. A vulnerability researcher or software developer needs to be careful that they don't become KIA. This is where some of the hilarity comes from. Here are some examples:

http://www.teamwhiskey.com/ - Release modified GPL software to de-brand and root samsung mobile devices.

"All software, code and data from this site is property of Teamwhiskey and is not to be reproduced, copied, kanged, modified or redistributed under an circumstances"

http://unrevoked.com - Release modifed GPL software to de-brand and root HTC devices.

"Q: Will you release the source code?
A: At this time, we are not disclosing the vulnerability we have exploited to unlock the NAND flash.

Q: That doesn't seem fair! Android is about open source.
A: In some senses, we agree; but at times, a tradeoff needs to be made. Releasing the source code for this, we believe, would compromise the greater ability to unlock devices like these in the future. Given the choice between sacrificing the liberty of running code on our handsets and the liberty of reading the code by which we unlock it, we feel that the millions of handsets are more important. It is unfortunate that we must make such a choice, and we look forward to the day in the future that no such decision need be made. "

http://forum.xda-developers.com - Some popular forums have identified this problem, and are trying to take steps to fix this

"As XDA has no legal power to uphold the GPL (and frankly we want to stay as far away from doing so as possible), we can’t force any of our users to abide by the GPL. However it is in XDA’s interests as well as the interests of our developer-base to ensure all GPL-derived materials hosted or linked on XDA comply fully with the GPL."

Hackers and software developers do in fact have a real risk: If they make it easy for end-users to have software freedom from their carrier... then the carrier may lash out at them. If the de-branding and rooting is marketed well via grassroots methods, it increases the odds of this. Sadly many developers believe that they will have less risk by violating the GPL willingly than publishing the details of their work.

As hackers of open source software, we have an opportunity to show that we DO have rights, we are NOT afraid of being sued by companies who feel threatened by developers. These hackers and developers are simply realizing the rights the GPL license and DMCA grant to them.

The world of phone modding has been around for years; the introduction of open source software into this ecosystem is a game changer. Phone modding can now come out of the closet and embrace the new open source foundations which modern phones are now based. Do not be afraid.

Keep hacking,
-3ric

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