October 2, 2022

Android WebView security and the mobile advertising marketplace

Freedom to Tinker readers are probably aware of the current controversy over Google’s handling of ongoing security vulnerabilities in its Android WebView component. What sounds at first like a routine security problem turns out to have some deep challenges.  Let’s start by filling in some background and build up to the big problem they’re not talking about: Android advertising.
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Striking a balance between advertising and ad blocking

In the news, we have a consortium of French publishers, which somehow includes several major U.S. corporations (Google, Microsoft), attempting to sue AdBlock Plus developer Eyeo, a German firm with developers around the world. I have no idea of the legal basis for their case, but it’s all about the money. AdBlock Plus and the closely related AdBlock are among the most popular Chrome extensions, by far, and publishers will no doubt claim huge monetary damages around presumed “lost income”.
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Google+Motorola = Software Patent Indictment

Google’s announcement this morning that it had agreed to purchase Motorola Mobility for $12.5Billion sent MMI’s stock price soaring and set off another conversation about software patents and the smart-phone ecosystem.

Larry Page himself emphasized the patent angle of the merger in the corporate blog post:

We recently explained how companies including Microsoft and Apple are banding together in anti-competitive patent attacks on Android. The U.S. Department of Justice had to intervene in the results of one recent patent auction to “protect competition and innovation in the open source software community” and it is currently looking into the results of the Nortel auction. Our acquisition of Motorola will increase competition by strengthening Google’s patent portfolio, which will enable us to better protect Android from anti-competitive threats from Microsoft, Apple and other companies.

Android-users already faced several patent lawsuits, and after a coalition of Google’s opponents, including Microsoft, Apple, and Oracle, purchased Nortel’s patent portfolio for $4.5 Billion, Google and its Android partners (including HTC and Motorola) had reason to fear a deepening thicket. Without many patents of its own, Google couldn’t make the traditional counter-strike of suing its attackers for infringement. Motorola’s mobile portfolio (17,000 issued patents and 7,500 pending applications) adds to Android’s arsenal.

Of course Motorola also makes hardware — smartphones that run Android — but few analysts are emphasizing that point. There, the acquisition raises strategic questions for Google: Can it convincingly offer the Android platform to others with whom it now competes? Even if Google maintains Motorola as a separate business, as Page says it intends, will now-competing vendors such as HTC, Samsung, and Acer be reassured of Google+Motorola’s neutrality among them?

Owning a handset maker could improve Android, if it shortens the feedback loop for problem-reporting and new ideas, but it could hurt the platform — and its end-users — more if it scared off competing hardware vendors, shrinking the base to which new applications are written and reducing the diversity of options available to end-users. As proprietor of an open, multi-sided market, Google needs to serve Android’s hardware vendors, app developers, and end-users well enough that a good-sized group of each continue to bring it value — and so the end-users watch the ads whose sale puts money into Google’s pocket from it all. (Oh, and maybe the acquisition will revitalize GoogleTV, as Lauren Weinstein points out.)

The patent motivations are more straightforward. As we know, it doesn’t take deliberate copying to infringe a patent, and patents are granted on small enough increments of software advance that an independently developed application may incorporate dozens to hundreds of elements on which others claim patents, and at millions of dollars a lawsuit, it’s expensive to disprove them. At least if those others are also making phones or software, Google is now more likely to have patents on what they are doing too, paving the way for a cross-license rather than a lawsuit.

Wouldn’t we all be better off skipping those patent threats and cross-licensing transaction costs? As Google’s pre-Motorola travails showed, it’s almost* impossible to opt-out of the patent system by choosing to publish and not patent your own inventions. Unlike in copyright, where you can share under Creative Commons, for example, and just have to prove you never accessed another’s work if accused of infringement, you can only save yourself from patent claims by assuring that every bit of technology you use was published more than 17-20 years ago! (*Rare but not impossible: Richard Hipp of SQLite says he only uses 17-year old, published algorithms to keep his code free of patent clouds.)

In a work-in-progress, I argue that patent’s incentives aren’t working right for software, because they come at too early a stage in development. Patents for software motivate lawsuits more than they induce or reward product development. Google+Motorola may prove to have non-patent benefits too, but its early indications shine a spotlight on the thorny thickets of the patent landscape.

HTC Willfully Violates the GPL in T-Mobile's New G2 Android Phone

[UPDATE (Oct 14, 2010): HTC has released the source code. Evidently 90-120 days was not in fact necessary, given that they managed to do it 7 days after the phone’s official release. It is possible that the considerable pressure from the media, modders, kernel copyright holders, and other kernel hackers contributed to the apparently accelerated release.]

[UPDATE (Nov 10, 2010): The phone has been permanently rooted.]

Last week, the hottest new Android-based phone arrived on the doorstep of thousands of expectant T-Mobile customers. What didn’t arrive with the G2 was the source code that runs the heart of the device — a customized Linux kernel. Android has been hailed as an open platform in the midst of other highly locked-down systems, but as it makes its way out of the Google source repository and into devices this vision has repeatedly hit speedbumps. Last year, I blogged about one such issue, and to their credit Google sorted out a solution. This has ultimately been to everyone’s benefit, because the modified versions of the OS have routinely enabled software applications that the stock versions haven’t supported (not to mention improved reliability and speed).

When the G2 arrived, modders were eager to get to work. First, they had to overcome one of the common hurdles to getting anything installed — the “jailbreak”. Although the core operating system is open source, phone manufacturers and carriers have placed artificial restrictions on the ability to modify the basic system files. The motivations for doing so are mixed, but the effect is that hackers have to “jailbreak” or “root” the phone — essentially obtain super-user permissions. In 2009, the Copyright Office explicitly permitted such efforts when they are done for the purpose of enabling third-party programs to run on a phone.

G2 owners were excited when it appeared that an existing rooting technique worked on the G2, but were dismayed when their efforts were reversed every time the phone rebooted. T-Mobile passed the buck to HTC, the phone manufacturer:

The HTC software implementation on the G2 stores some components in read-only memory as a security measure to prevent key operating system software from becoming corrupted and rendering the device inoperable. There is a small subset of highly technical users who may want to modify and re-engineer their devices at the code level, known as “rooting,” but a side effect of HTC’s security measure is that these modifications are temporary and cannot be saved to permanent memory. As a result the original code is restored.

As it turned out, the internal memory chip included an option to make certain portions of memory read-only, which had the effect of silently discarding all changes upon reboot. However, it appears that this can be changed by sending the right series of commands to the chip. This effectively moved the rooting efforts into the complex domain of hardware hacking, with modders trying to figure out how to send these commands. Doing so involves writing some very challenging code that interacts with the open-source Linux kernel. The hackers haven’t yet succeeded (although they still could), largely because they are working in the dark. The relevant details about how the Linux kernel has been modified by HTC have not been disclosed. Reportedly, the company is replying to email queries with the following:

Thank you for contacting HTC Technical Assistance Center. HTC will typically publish on developer.htc.com the Kernel open source code for recently released devices as soon as possible. HTC will normally publish this within 90 to 120 days. This time frame is within the requirements of the open source community.

Perhaps HTC (and T-Mobile, distributor of the phone) should review the actual contents of the GNU Public License (v2), which stipulate the legal requirements for modifying and redistributing Linux. They state that you may only distribute derivative code if you “[a]ccompany it with the complete corresponding machine-readable source code.” Notably, there is no mention of a “grace period” or the like.

The importance of redistributing source code in a timely fashion goes beyond enabling phone rooting. It is the foundation of the “copyleft” regime of software licensing that has led to the flourishing of the open source software ecosystem. If every useful modification required waiting 90 to 120 days to be built upon, it would have taken eons to get to where we are today. It’s one thing for a company to choose to pursue the closed-source model and to start from scratch, but it’s another thing for it to profit from the goodwill of the open source community while imposing arbitrary and illegal restrictions on the code.