Developers frustrated by the fragmented Android hardware terrain got an unlikely ally last week in the American Civil Liberties Union. The civil rights group filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission asking that the agency investigate wireless carriers for not updating their Android phones quickly enough to protect consumers against security holes. The ACLU cited the millions of phones using the Google operating system from AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile. “Unfortunately, the vast majority of these phones never receive critical software security updates, exposing consumers and their private data to significant cyber security related risks,” the group said in a statement.
The ACLU is accusing the carriers of not giving consumers fair warning about these potential security flaws. In the 16-page complaint, the group said that 75% of the smartphone market in the U.S. is composed of Android phones, but that the majority have been left without necessary security patches or updates. “The problem isn’t that consumers aren’t installing updates, but rather, that update simply aren’t available,” the complaint says. Generally, the latest versions of the Android operating system are only immediately compatible with the latest versions of smartphone hardware, and it is left to the individual carriers to make any necessary modifications to the latest operating system version and to release it for installation on specific models that they carry.
It is important to point out that the ACLU does not blame Google for the problem. In fact, it states that Google engineers are regularly fixing the software flaws in the Android operating system. The choke-point in the system is the carriers, the ACLU claims. Interestingly, the ACLU uses desktop software and its traditions of regular patches and updates pushed out to all users as a precedent that the carriers are not following. The group argues that carriers should be offering consumers device refunds and the ability to cancel contracts without penalty because the carriers are not guaranteeing device security by issuing regular updates to the operating system.
The ACLU says that in most cases it is addressing privacy rights and civil liberties on mobile phones by protecting consumers from warrantless searches by the government and legal authorities. But the group says that threats to personal data are coming from all quarters now. “Identity thieves, stockers and foreign state actors also pose a threat to consumers and their data,” the ACLU says.