2021 Jul 10

How to Liberate Billions of Android Users

As of 2019, there were 2.5 billion active Android devices. Typically, software vendors such as Google, Samsung, LG, and Motorola only support devices for two or three years. After that, vendors drop software updates, a complaint motivating the development of postmarketOS, a Linux distribution targeting mobile devices. Users' ability to adopt such community-controlled software is hindered, however, by vendors' persistent grip on bootloaders—refusal to unlock them to allow installing third-party software—even after dropping software updates! Vendors act like they own these devices.

When vendors drop and drag, they want users to choose from a limited set of options:

  1. Keep using the device despite outdated software. The unpatched security vulnerabilities expose the user to risk of identity theft, ransomware, surveillance, and denial-of-service, and may facilitate exploitation by remote agents for cryptocurrency mining or botnets. The vendor promotes malware through its negligence.

  2. Convert the device into e-waste. A recycler destroys it or a waste collector puts it in a landfill. The vendor thereby wastes the energy and materials used in manufacturing and cuts short the remaining service life of the hardware, which is often several years. Vendors prefer this option, as it encourages people to buy a new device, which is their business model.

Observe this negligent practice and the upward trend of unrepairable design, and it is clear that vendors do not care about users or the environment. They just want to sell devices.

I see three prongs of counteraction.

Lobby governments to outlaw drop-and-drag. Make vendors treat consumers and the environment better. This will take time, as the vendors have powerful political lobbies of their own, and work very hard to maintain a false image of sustainability. A strong, bottom-up democracy is a prerequisite of this approach, which, in the United States, presents a significant obstacle.

Create community-controlled technology. Set an example by producing devices that are meant to be controlled by users, ideally with copylefted hardware and software, which will ensure that the intellectual commons around mobile computing is replenished and remains in the best interest of users. While this approach can spread community-centered thinking about technology, it does not directly counteract the impact of existing proprietary, authoritarian technology. Mobile devices are highly complex, and much of the knowledge around them is proprietary.

These paths should be taken; I think they are essential to achieving resilient community control over technology. However, they are indirect and face significant obstacles which will delay their impact.

There’s a third option available to users, which vendors know most will not take:

Exploit vulnerabilities in the device to unlock the bootloader and install community-controlled software. Most users lack the skill to do this, but some try by using third-party software—often obtained on forums full of people seeking ways to customize their device. Users that cannot evaluate the exploiting applications risk exposure to malware.

This path is accessible to me, since I am a software engineer. Lacking a background in computer security, I thought unlocking a bootloader by exploiting vulnerabilities would be a great learning experience. I obtained a Motorola Moto G4 Play (XT1607) on eBay for $30. This model was released in 2016, so Motorola dropped it years ago. After I discovered that the phone was sold under a deal giving Amazon control over the software, and that Motorola was dragging it by the bootloader—declining to unlock it at my request—I began seeking vulnerabilities and exploits. The process consumed a lot of time and energy, which prompted me to step back and devise a more strategic approach.

Understanding the vulnerabilities that affect a device in-hand requires obtaining as much information as possible about that device, such as security patch level and kernel version. As long as the device boots, this data can be obtained from the phone UI itself and using tools like adb and fastboot.

Android regularly publishes security bulletins that, while referring to a lot of information that isn’t public, still provide useful details on many bugs and patches. The bulletins are available only as HTML on the web, so they’re not suited to searching for vulnerabilities that affect a specific device.

To deal with this obstacle, I created android-bulletin, a tool that transforms the 3000-some vulnerabilities listed in the bulletins into a single table. Using other tools, such as textql, the table can be queried using SQL, the lingua franca of data. For instance, to search for vulnerabilities in my XT1607, I wrote the query

select * from vulns
where patchlevel between "2018-06-05" and date("now")
and not reference = ""
and (versions like "%7.1.1%"
    or (component like "%Qualcomm%"
       and component2 like "%boot%")
    or (component like "%kernel%"
       and component2 like "%kernel%"));

which returns a table of about 200 vulnerabilities that may affect my XT1607. Due to the complexity of the Android software ecosystem, the device is not guaranteed to have all vulnerabilities listed. But at least I don’t have to sift through thousands of vulnerabilities by hand.

The table can also be loaded by standard spreadsheet software, and filters can be used to produce similar results.

I’d like to see unlocking bootloaders transformed from an individual problem—something done by enthusiasts—into an organized, communal activity that makes it accessible to more people. Instead of seeking out shadowy exploit apps in a forum, there should be a community of people collecting knowledge and tools that can automate the process of unlocking bootloaders. Communities like postmarketOS might be well-poised to undertake such an effort.

There are challenges to this approach; the number of software and hardware variants of the 2.5 billion devices is very large. But by pooling our efforts and creating tools that leverage computation, maybe we can unlock some of them, and free their users from the drop-and-draggers who made this mess.


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© 2021 Karl Schultheisz — Lancaster, PA, USA