Android security: Which smartphones can enterprises trust? – CSO Online
By Galen Gruman
Executive Editor for Global Content, CSO |
Google’s Android operating system dominates smartphone usage throughout the world — in every region except North America and Oceania, in fact. Thus, businesses in many regions are likely to support and issue Android devices to employees as their mainstay mobile devices. Even in areas where Apple’s iPhone dominates or is comparable in market share, businesses are likely to support or issue Android devices at least as a secondary option.
But Android security has long been an IT concern, despite significant security improvements made to the platform a decade ago in response to security standards put in place for iPhones, which quickly gained the security seal approval as a result. That makes the buying and support decision around Android phones more complex for CISOs — whether as corporate-liable devices (that is, the devices that enterprises buy for their employees) or as employee-liable devices or bring-your-own devices (BYOD) that IT allows access at least to work email and calendars, and often to web-based services.
This article surveys the key considerations for Android security and then classifies the major Android vendors based on security level to help narrow IT’s purchase and support choices. (Our sister publication Computerworld details other enterprise buying considerations for Android devices.)
Apple tightly controls the iPhone and its iOS operating system, which gives the CISO strong assurance about software updates, security patches, and manageability. By contrast, the Android world is highly diverse, with dozens of manufacturers using Google’s Android platform but offering varying levels of quality and support, and in many cases few or inconsistent OS and security updates.
In the early days of Android, security was a major IT concern for the emerging smartphone market. Research in Motion’s BlackBerry had set high standards in the 1990s and early 2000s for mobile security, whereas the early Android (and iOS) devices fell far short of IT expectations.
Apple and then Samsung moved to make mobile security at least as good as BlackBerry’s in the early 2010s, and Google followed suit a few years later by making encryption standard in Android and then making container-based separation of work and personal data and apps a standard part of 2015’s Android 5.0 Lollipop OS. By 2017, the Android platform had strong security capabilities. More sophisticated capabilities became available through both hardware and software extensions, such as Samsung’s Knox platform in 2013 for its enterprise devices and Google’s Android for Work (later renamed Android Enterprise) for the rest of the Android world. Android Enterprise support became a standard feature in 2018’s Android 9.0 Pie.
Today, IT can count on all Android devices having the basic level of security needed. But some users — such as high-level executives who deal in sensitive corporate data, or operations staff managing critical infrastructure or supply chains — need more security.
The availability of Android vendors varies widely across the globe, so the choices of suitably secure devices where your organization operates also vary; our sister site Computerworld has outlined in which markets Android vendors have significant presence to guide you to the likely candidates for your business. Based on StatCounter data, 13 current Android vendors have 1% or more usage share in at least one region:
Google has a certification called Android Enterprise Recommended (AER) that focuses on enterprise concerns around performance, device management, bulk device enrollment, and security update commitments. Google publishes an AER tool to help IT see which devices meet that certification in various regions, as well as explore supported Android versions and end dates for security updates. Just keep in mind that the AER tool’s results can be out of date and incomplete, so do not rely solely on it.
There are three Android security levels to consider, and many organizations will need more than one in place to cover different sets of employees.
This level is appropriate on personal devices permitted to access basic corporate systems like email. The basic security level provides device encryption, password enforcement, remote lock and wipe, and sandboxed execution of security functions. All current Android devices support this level, with even just a basic management tool like Google Workspace or Microsoft 365 in place.
This level is appropriate for when IT requires or allows personal devices to be used for corporate access and apps, as well as for corporate-issued devices allowed to also be used for personal purposes. The moderate security level provides the basic level plus separation of work data and apps from personal data and apps via containers, via a unified endpoint management (UEM) platform that supports Google’s Android Enterprise platform or, only for Samsung devices, Samsung Knox platform. Tip: Compare the leading UEM platforms’ capabilities in Computerworld’s guide.
All current Android devices with at least 3MB of RAM support work/personal separation, but some UEM platforms may require that the devices run newer versions of Android than are deployed at your organization.
This level is appropriate for executives, human resources professionals, finance professionals, and anyone dealing with critical data and systems access such as in government, defense/military, finance, healthcare, and critical infrastructure like utilities, energy, and transport. The advanced security level provides the moderate level plus chip-based security enabled to reduce unauthorized access by spies and hackers, as well as compliance with the US’s recent Common Criteria security standard.
Chip-level security detects hacks to the operating system, firmware, memory, and other core systems, and locks down or shuts down the device as a result, via Android’s Keystore service. Such hardware-level security is not an Android Enterprise Recommended requirement, but it is essential for military-grade security.
Only a few devices use chip-level security to protect system integrity: Samsung’s Android Secured by Knox phones use Arm’s TrustZone chip for its Trusted Boot, Google’s Pixel series uses its own Titan-M chip for its Trusted Execution Environment (TEE), and Motorola says all its Android devices use Arm’s TrustZone chip for its Strongbox. (Apple’s iPhones have this capability too via the Secure Enclave.) The other Android vendors did not respond to my inquiries about their security capabilities but appear not to support hardware-based security, based on their websites’ specification data.
Common Criteria imposes specific security approaches that the US government thus knows it can rely on across devices. Although also not an Android Enterprise Recommended requirement, Common Criteria is a good advanced-security standard for IT to use anywhere in the world.
Android models from multiple vendors comply with Common Criteria: a few from Google, Huawei, Motorola, Oppo, Samsung, and Sony, as well as some front-line specialty devices from Honeywell and Zebra Technologies. (Filter by “Mobility” in the Common Criteria web tool to get the current list.) Apple’s iPhone also complies.
Organizations may want to look to government certifications to determine their Android device selections for sensitive uses. When Apple and Samsung both gained US Defense Department, UK Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), and Australian Signals Directorate approval for use of their enterprise-class devices in the mid-2010s, it was huge news — breaking BlackBerry’s longstanding monopoly on government approval.
Today, such announcements are rare, and governments instead focus on ensuring that approved UEM platforms are in place to manage the widely used iPhones and Android phones. Recently the US Department of Defense has approved several Samsung phones and some front-line Android devices from Honeywell and Zebra Technologies for sensitive uses, as it moves to using the Common Criteria standard. The Australia Signals Directorate has approved several Samsung phones recently as well.
IT typically wants assurances that devices will get security updates and OS updates for several years to reduce the risk of being hacked via old devices that haven’t kept up their defenses. Google’s Android Enterprise Recommended certification requires only one future OS upgrade. For security updates, it has no minimum, requiring only that vendors publish their update commitments on their websites — and that information can be hard to find.
In my survey of Android vendor sites, three to five years is typical for Android security update commitments on business-class devices, and one to three future Android OS versions is typical for OS updates. (By contrast, Apple typically provides seven years of security updates and five years of iOS updates.) The stingiest Android vendors in terms of OS updates are Motorola, Oppo, and Xiaomi, which commit to just one major Android upgrade for their enterprise-class models. Google and Samsung have the best update commitments.
Vendors’ published update commitments for business-class Android devices include:
I could not find update information at the Huawei, Infinix, Itel, and Tecno sites, and the companies did not respond to my requests for information.
For certified devices, you can also use Google’s Android Enterprise Recommended tool to narrow down by what date various vendors’ specific models’ security updates will end. Just keep in mind that the tool may not list recent models. I also recommend you verify whether vendors do what they promise by getting some older devices and seeing how recent the available security updates are: Have they kept up the promised duration?
Finally, keep in mind that cellular carriers can override, slow, or block updates in many countries, overriding whatever promises the device vendor has made. For example, Google notes on its Pixel page that Pixel phones bought directly from Google often get updates sooner than those bought through a carrier. That carrier control is a longstanding reality, well pre-dating modern mobile devices, with only Apple able to have fully wrested control over updates from the carriers.
The Android market breaks down into four classes of security assurance, based on how vendors address key enterprise IT security concerns:
There’s just one Android manufacturer with global device availability and enterprise-class (even military-grade) security, plus multiyear software and security updates after purchase: Samsung. That makes Samsung the best (and often only) choice for corporate-liable Android devices in every region of the world. Its enterprise-grade models (what Samsung calls Android Secured by Knox) include the Galaxy S, Galaxy A5x, Galaxy A3x, Note, XCover, Z Flip3, and Z Fold3 series. For these models, security updates are promised for five years after initial release; Samsung publishes the security lifespans for its enterprise-grade devices, which vary by device.
Google’s Pixel 7 series phones are similarly secure. Google, too, promises five years of security updates after initial release. However, the Pixel 7 series is available in just Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, India, Ireland, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Singapore, Spain, Sweden, Taiwan, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
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