The Opera-Mini Dispute
I have just read an interesting article about the Opera browser . The article is very critical of Opera-Mini on the iPhone for many reasons – most of which don’t interest me greatly. There are lots of technical trade-offs that you can make when designing an application for a constrained environment (EG a phone with low resolution and low bandwidth).
What does interest me is the criticism of the Opera Mini browser for proxying all Internet access (including HTTPS) through their own servers, this has been getting some traction around the Internet. Now it is obvious that if you have one server sitting on the net that proxies connections to lots of banks then there will be potential for abuse. What apparently isn’t obvious to as many people is the fact that you have to trust the application.
Causes of Software Security Problems
When people think about computer security they usually think about worms and viruses that exploit existing bugs in software and about Trojan horse software that the user has to be tricked into running. These are both significant problems.
But another problem is that of malicious software releases. I think that this is significantly different from Trojan horses because instead of having an application which was written for the sole purpose of tricking people (as is most similar to Greek history) you have an application that was written by many people who genuinely want to make a good product but you have a single person or small group that hijacks it.
Rumor has it that rates well in excess of $10,000 are sometimes paid for previously unknown security vulnerabilities in widely used software. It seems likely that a programmer who was in a desperate financial situation could bolster their salary by deliberately putting bugs in software and then selling the exploits, this would not be a trivial task (making such bugs appear to be genuine mistakes would take some skill) – but there are lots of people who could do it and plausibly deny any accusation other than carelessness. There have been many examples of gambling addicts who have done more foolish things to fund their habit.
I don’t think it’s plausible to believe that every security flaw which has been discovered in widely used software was there purely as the result of a mistake. Given the huge number of programmers who have the skill needed to deliberately introduce a security flaw into the source of a program and conceal it from their colleagues I think it’s quite likely that someone has done so and attempted to profit from it.
Note that even if it could be proven that it was impossible to profit from creating a security flaw in a program that would not be sufficient to prove that it never happened. There is plenty of evidence of people committing crimes in the mistaken belief that it would be profitable for them.
Should We Trust a Proprietary Application or an Internet Server?
I agree with the people who don’t like the Opera proxy idea, I would rather run a web browser on my phone that directly accesses the Internet. But I don’t think that the web browser that is built in to my current smart-phone is particularly secure. It seems usual for a PC to need a security update for the base OS or the web browser at least once a year while mobile phones have a standard service life of two years without any updates. I suspect that there is a lot of flawed code running on smart phones that never get updated.
It seems to me that the risks with Opera are the single point of failure of the proxy server in addition to the issues of code quality while the risks with the browser that is on my smart-phone is just the quality of the code. I suspect that Opera may do a better job of updating their software to fix security issues so this may mitigate the risk from using their proxy.
At the moment China is producing a significant portion of the world’s smart-phones. Some brands like LG are designed and manufactured in China, others are manufactured in China for marketing/engineering companies based in Europe and the US. A casual browse of information regarding Falun Gong makes the character of the Chinese leadership quite clear , I think that everything that comes out of China should be considered to be less trustworthy than equivalent products from Europe and the US. So I think that anyone who owns a Chinese mobile phone and rails against the Opera Mini hasn’t considered the issue enough.
I don’t think it’s possible to prove that an Opera Mini with it’s proxy is more or less of a risk than a Chinese smart-phone. I’m quite happy with my LG Viewty  – but I wouldn’t use it for Internet banking or checking my main email account.
Also we have to keep in mind that mobile phones are really owned by telephone companies. You might pay for your phone or even get it “unlocked” so you can run it on a different network, but you won’t get the custom menus of your telco removed. Most phones are designed to meet the needs of telcos not users and I doubt that secure Internet banking is a priority for a telco.
Update: You can buy unlocked mobile phones. But AFAIK the Android is the only phone which might be described as not being designed for the needs of the telcos over the needs of the users. So while you can get a phone without custom menus for a telco, you probably can’t get a phone that was specifically designed for what you want to do.
The Scope of the Problem
Mobile phones are not the extent of the problem, I think that anyone who buys a PC from a Chinese manufacturer and doesn’t immediately wipe the hard drive and do a fresh OS install is taking an unreasonable risk. The same thing goes for anyone who buys a PC from a store where it’s handled by low wage employees, I can imagine someone on a minimum income accepting a cash payment to run some special software on every PC before it goes out the door – that wouldn’t be any more difficult or risky than the employees who copy customer credit card numbers (a reasonably common crime).
It’s also quite conceivable that any major commercial software company could have a rogue employee who is deliberately introducing bugs into it’s software. That includes Apple. If the iPhone OS was compromised before it shipped then the issue of browser security wouldn’t matter much.
I agree that having the minimum possible number of potential security weak points is a good idea. They should allow Opera Mini users to select that HTTPS traffic should not be proxied. But I don’t think that merely not using a proxy would create a safe platform for Internet banking. In terms of mobile phones most things are done in the wrong way to try and get more money out of the users. Choose whichever phone or browser you want and it will probably still be a huge security risk.
Harald Welte is doing some really good work on developing free software for running a GSM network . But until that project gets to the stage of being widely usable I think that we just have to accept a certain level of security risk when using mobile phones.