Archive for September, 2017

How Secure is Android?

Saturday, September 23rd, 2017

Android is used in over 1.4 billion devices today. Android versions are named after treats in alphabetical order. The treat code names began with release C for “Cupcake,” after two previously unnamed releases had so many builds that people were getting confused between version 1.0 and version 1.1 builds. (Petit Four was an internal name). The codenamed versions are as follows: Cupcake (1.5), Donut (1.6), Éclair (2.0-2.1), Froyo (2.2), Gingerbread (2.3), Honeycomb (3.0), Ice cream sandwich (4.0), Jellybean (4.1 – 4.3), Kit Kat (4.4), Lollipop (5.0), Marshmallow (6.0), and Nougat (7.0). The latest version is Android 8.0, code named Oreo.

Code named versions of the Android OS began (in alphabetical order) once numbered builds started getting confusing. Shown, from left to right, is the numbered version, name, and release date.

The Android team at Google is constantly updating new security features by collaborating with researchers, device manufacturers, and the Android ecosystem. Potentially Harmful Apps (PHAs) can put devices at risk, so Verify Apps was introduced in Jelly Bean 4.2. Verify Apps checks Android software against a database of exploits, malware, and viruses. If you have an Android phone, you can see when your apps were last scanned: Open Settings, select Google, and then Security. It tells you which apps were scanned and when (if you have a recent version of the operating system). Google claims it scanned “750 million daily checks in 2016, up from 450 million the previous year,” checking more than 6 billion apps for malware worldwide. Google Play Services is not just related to downloading stuff on Google Play; it needs to be turned on in order for Verify Apps to run.


In 2016, as compared to the year before, the Verify Apps reduced Trojans by 51.5% and backdoors by 30.5%. At the end of 2016, only 0.05% of devices that only downloaded apps from the Google Play store contained some kind of PHA (e.g., trojans, backdoor, phishing). Apple is not immune. In September 2015, the iOS App Store had 85 legitimate iPhone apps infected with malware, according to Reuters.

If you do get a PHA on your Android phone, Google Play Services might warn you in a notification or remove the app automatically for you and notify you. The Google Play Protect feature is turned on by default, but you can make sure it’s turned on by opening Google Play Store on your phone, tapping the hamburger menu, and selecting Play Protect.

Another nice feature of Android phones is that you can erase all data on your phone remotely if necessary. Open and sign into your Google account. Login using your password and your phone will ring for 5 minutes, even if it was previously set to silent. You can lock your phone and set it to display a message like “Please call xxx-xxx-xxxx to return,” or erase all content on the device.

Don’t forget that the best protection is to have a very long password for your Google account and to lock your phone with a password.

Digital Signage Computing Platforms Go Modular

Friday, September 1st, 2017

You may have noticed that many food menu boards, health club schedules, and signs in convention centers, hospitals, and even churches are now on large digital displays rather than permanent signs. It’s easier to change the content, but it’s about to get easier. Digital signage has a new tool in a modular-minded computing platform. Traditionally, if software outgrows computing power, you get a whole new system. But what if you could swap out the computing platform like a game cartridge?

Earlier in 2017, Intel announced a family of Compute Cards, each of which has a processor, onboard storage, memory, wireless connectivity, flexible I/O. Upgrading performance means a new Compute Card, not a whole new computing platform, which also means less for the landfill. An Intel Compute Card is a bit longer than a small stack of credit cards at 95mm x 55mm x 5mm, but it’s got all of the elements of a full computer. Companies can make docks for all kinds of application-specific products, since Compute Cards bring the entire computing platform in as a single component.

Meanwhile, Intel has created a 19V dock with an HDMI® v1.4 port, Mini DisplayPort® 1.2, a LAN RJ-45 port with 10/100/1000 Mbps Ethernet controller, and three USB 3.0 ports. Some will wonder how this is much different from a USB stick. You can boot to an operating system from a USB stick, but USB sticks don’t have processors. Imagine going to a library with your personal computer card; your desktop and software settings are there, you don’t have to clean the browser cache when you leave, and your applications are all there and run as expected. This is one of those “why didn’t I think of that” products.

The Intel Compute Card and Dock. (Credit: Intel)

Figure 1: The Intel Compute Card and Dock. (Credit: Intel)

Digital signs with cumbersome existing physical installations will find upgrading easier. Imagine updating the digital signage systems in New York Times Square to accommodate new software in various layers of the stack that enable revolutionary new programming features. The display would stay, and the Compute Card would be changed out for one that can handle the increased performance requirements. In an Intel press release dated May 30, 2017, Intel stated that there were a large number of “partners currently working on [dock] solutions” that include Dell, HP, and Lenovo.

A whole range of products can be offered, allowing end users to start at the low end and buy up to higher performance later on. Guaranteed effective upgrades can be shipped on a slim Compute Card, negating the need to negotiate perceived failures due to inadequate platforms with customers who might be better at managing retail than managing an upgrade to their chic electronic displays.

Applications don’t stop at digital signs and kiosks. The Compute Card is proposed for use with Internet of Things (IoT), tablet-based systems, interactive whiteboards, intelligent vending machines, mobile video production, smart TVs, robotics automation, security systems, point-of-sale systems, and all-in-one PCs that are easily upgraded. Successful applications always get upgraded with more sophisticated software that pushes the performance envelope. Can Intel patent the concept of a compute-platform-as-a-cartridge? Will motherboards, in general, shrink to small modules worldwide? As of this writing, the Intel Compute Card has not yet been officially released, but should be out soon, as advance demonstration models have been sent out.

Table 1: The Intel Compute Card presently features four levels of performance (see Table 1 below). Intel is also releasing the Compute Card Device Design Kit, a set of guides and reference designs that are available via Intel’s Classified Design Information (CDI) portal for any customer under NDA.

Intel's four Compute Cards provide various levels of performance.