At the Black Hat security conference being held in Las Vegas this week, mobile security firm Lookout announced that an app distributed in Google's Android Market had collected private information from millions of users, then forwarded it to servers in China. Worse than that, the exact number of affected users isn't known, since the Android Market doesn't provide precise data. Estimates are that the app was downloaded anywhere from 1.1 million to 4.6 million times.
The app appeared to simply load free custom background wallpapers, but in fact collected a user's browsing history, text messages, the SIM card number, and even voice mail passwords, and then sent the data to a web site in Shenzen, China.
This is different from the recent AT&T website leak that could have let a hacker access 144,000 iPad 3G user email addresses, since in this case the data theft actually did happen, was being perpetrated by malicious hackers, involves much more personal information, and affected many more people.
So what's the difference between the security methodologies used by Google and Apple? Apple approves iOS apps only after they've gone through a strict (and frustrating to developers) process, while Google's Android Market simply warns the user that an app needs permission to perform certain functions during the installation. iOS apps must be signed by an Apple-created certificate, which means that malicious developers have a harder time distributing malware anonymously.
Lookout also noted that iOS remains virus-free, since third-party apps can only be distributed through Apple's heavily-moderated App Store, and the apps run in a sandbox environment where they can't affect the system. Lookout chief executive John Hering said that "he believes both Google and Apple are on top of policing their app stores." It's just those odd cases where apps don't do what they're advertised to do that can cause problems for users.