For your messages to be secure, you need the right device
When you first get a phone, unused and untouched, new from the factory, you would assume that it is secure. That it contains no security holes or malware. After all, it is brand new. Or when the phone is reset to factory settings. The device might need to update, but surely it is safe and secure. Right?
Incidents have been found in which malware has already got into devices whilst they were still at the factory. Google revealed that Android devices has been attacked before even being shipped out. Via a third part module, which the manufacturer had developed for them, a supply chain attack embedded malware inside the chipset. This means that even if you were to reset the device, it would remain, due to the Android being a customized version. Incidents like these leave people with less trust of the operating system security and devices in question, app developers such as ourselves included.
Reasons like this are why SKY ECC deploys onto devices that come straight from Apple, Blackberry and Google. Devices must also pass our security evaluations to ensure how secure they are. And we do not modify any core operating systems or build our own devices.
To keep security at a maximum, you have to build from the beginning, with strong foundations. To do this we need thoroughly checked and vetted devices that are secure from the very start.
How can a phone be compromised so early?
Google posted in its security blog that the malware incident occurred because the manufacturer wanted more features to be added, more then what can currently be supported by Android. For this to work, the manufacturer reaches out to a third party to develop the custom module and then they take the module and integrate it into Android. In a report by Forbes, it is said that devices that were infected were done so by the outside developer with Triada – a type of malware that is aimed at stealing financial information by rapidly installing spam apps. It is believed that 42 devices contain the modified Androids, all in different cheap budget phones.
Since Triada being discovered in 2016, Android has been patched by Google, as to better protect it and help defend against Triada. The link above goes into the details of Triada, how it works and how the patch was built to combat it, if you wish to know more.
The crucial part of all of this is that, as they wanted to add additional features, the manufacturer went to a third part developer to create and make them. Now this is not completely bad. Wanting to create new modules is no problem, in fact, operating systems are constantly improved by outside parties, who develop new ideas and features that are often eventually included in the core operating system. Where the problem lies is within how modules for Android are developed. Third parties can get access to the OS’s core, something they have to do so that the new feature may be integrated to the device, which can lead to developers inserting malicious code with no one knowing.
An incident such as the case we mentioned earlier could have been prevented should the manufacturer have done third party developer checks, making sure that the code was checked. But in that case, it was budget devices. Trust was placed in an outside developer and it backfired. With iOS this is not so much of a problem. The only way to customize the iOS is to use jailbreaking, which causes every single security chip to trip, thus its use as a secure device is completely rendered useless. A cheaper phones price tag may be alluring, but often the cost is far higher then it may first seem. If the cost is to security, you can be sure that it will not be in the SKY ECC store.
Apple, Blackberry and Google are the only devices that we support at SKY ECC. So why those three? Two word answer: Security chips. Each of these manufacturers use hardware-based security chips in their devices, which act as “co-processors” separately from the main utilities of the phone. These help protect the device from:
- Tampering: A separate area from the operating system and apps is created, completely secure. Unable to be ‘seen’ by either the apps or the OS, it prevents attack vectors from tampering.
- Kernel protection: Attackers can easily be aware to vulnerabilities, such as moving back to an older operating system that is a version that is insecure, such as jumping back to 3.0 of OS from 3.1. Kernel protection prevents the operating system from doing this.
- Strong Cryptographic engines: Having a strong encryption is essential, with each device from the manufacturers having this.
- Passcode and biometric breaches: Within a secure area of the phone, the passcodes are stored, only able to be unlocked by the devices processor. If an attacker is trying to work out your passcode, the secure chip will intervene, forcing delays with each attempt. Even if an attacker breaches the OS, they cannot access your biometrics, with those protected in the secure area mentioned earlier.
Both the high level of security that we need to construct concentric layers of security and the great features the devices provide, to partner great software, are integral to SKY ECC being the most secure device available. Each of the phones we use have an array of secure features including:
- Apple: Using a chip named ‘Secure Enclave’, which is actually an isolated processor within the main chip, it is able to boot separately from the other parts of the OS. The 256 elliptic curve cryptography forms a strong cryptographic protection (Not as strong as our 521 elliptic curve cryptography , but definitely not too bad at all!). Also residing here is Apple Pay.
- BlackBerry: Much like Apple, Blackberry has the hardware security protected in an isolated section of the processor. Hardware based keys are employed to keep track of the phones through the manufacturing process, as to stop issues like with Triada. Also, only certain OS’s can be loaded, namely, BlackBerry signed ones, thanks to their secure boot function.
- Google: Google uses a secure separate chip to verify, with a public key within the chip’s silicon, the signature named Titan M. First functioning to help confirm boot functions it also makes checks to guarantee it has not been tampered or modified at lower levels, while also stopping rollbacks to any previous version.
In a review we found from earlier in the year looking at the best phones for both security and privacy , all three of our devices were among the listed devices. While we have always been confident in each device we have chosen and continue to pick, it is nice to see an independent view point provide some external validation.
With a secure device, a secure foundation
Writing in Helpnet Security, Uri Kreisman discusses what it takes to really be safe and secure in the modern day:
This new approach to cybersecurity aims to protect a phone by taking the battleground away entirely: if you store away data on a hardware isolated container, it cannot be accessible to an attacker. If you build cybersecurity solutions that take advantage of hardware isolation, you will be able to create truly accessible solutions for enterprises that want to be protected against spyware, ransomware, and other threats that may target their employees. While software best practices can prevent rudimentary attacks, relying on Android for security is like asking your car’s manufacturer to protect you against car thieves – there is only so much a company can do to protect its own popular product. Adding an isolated self-contained layer of hardware and software protection is of paramount importance to running a responsible, cyber secure business in the twenty-first century.
Our own security model, with our zero-trust approach is how he suggests to approach security. In his example of the car maker, he writes on it equates to fully trusting them to have your car protected from thieves. They can do a lot, but not everything that can be done. Hence why you might purchase wheel locks or security alarms. Apple, Blackberry and Google cannot do everything when it comes to protecting a device from every single threat.
So thus, it falls upon us to fill the gaps in security.
This is the reason why our devices are fully locked down and managed devices that SKY ECC is installed to the device by us, onto a secure container within and that network connections going to and from each device are fully secure.
But why do we not just make devices ourselves, cut out the other companies and have it done to personal specifications with the operating system to our requirements? That is something we could do. But approaching from this angle has several challenges:
- The high quality of each of our devices could severely suffer
- Device costs would be unable to be reduced due to the volume
- Only Android phones could be offered as custom hardware cannot run with iOS
But the major point is very simple: we are here to make software. Making devices is not for our company. Nor are we a mobile OS company. The manufacturer mentioned at the start of the article, they made devices. And they were still unable to catch the problem. We see far more value in designing and creating software that is truly great, with the security to go with it, then in being distracted from the goals we have set. In going to modify Androids and making custom version, we could rapidly find ourselves too far away from making our product better. And that would slow us down from making more great products in the future.
Starting on the right device
If keeping messages protected, encrypted and secure is something you care about, along with keeping your privacy from compromised, you have to think about the device you start off with.
We have made sure that we test our devices thoroughly and that if any of our three manufacturers were to be at the end of a supply-chain attack, the breach would be prevented by our other protections. And should they be breached, we would know extremely quickly, through independent contacts. If something was to occur, we would be able to react and deal with it quickly.
Be it choosing the right device at the beginning, to stooping a brute force attack with apps, to concentric security layers, we take security very seriously. It is at the heart of our company, not just the app. Even our office dogs like to help keep us safe and secure!
If protecting your privacy and messages matters to you, and you know others who believe similarly, consider turning that passion towards a business and look at being a SKY ECC Partner.