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Steve "CyanogenMod" Kondik Contemplates The Death of Root On Android 240

Posted by timothy
from the ways-of-knowing dept.
c0d3g33k writes "Prompted by the addition of new security features in Android 4.3 that limit the effectiveness of elevated privileges, Steve Kondik wonders which uses really require full root. Most common activities that prompt owners to root their devices (backup/restore tools, firewall/DNS resolver management, kernel tuning), could be accomplished without exposing root, argues Kondik, by providing additional APIs and extensions to the user. This would improve security by limiting the exposure of the system to exploits. Reasonable enough, on the face of it. The title of the post, however, suggests that Kondik believes that eventually all useful activities can be designed into the system so the 'dangerous and insecure' abilities provided by root/administrator privileges aren't needed. This kind of top-down thinking seems a bit troubling because it leads to greater control of the system by the developer at the expense of the owner of the device. It's been said that the best tools are those that lend themselves to uses not anticipated by the creator. Reducing or eliminating the ability of the owner to use a device in ways that are unanticipated ultimately reduces its potential power and usefulness. Perhaps that's what is wanted to prevent an owner from using the device in ways that are inconvenient or contrary to an established business model."
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Steve "CyanogenMod" Kondik Contemplates The Death of Root On Android

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  • Re:Bad summary (Score:5, Interesting)

    by bmo (77928) on Sunday July 28, 2013 @06:29PM (#44408599)

    This.

    Just like Linus' justifiable rant about having to be root in SuSE to set up a printer.

    There are legitimate reasons why an end user should need Root/Administrator, but they should be as few as possible. Microsoft has seen the light and has tried to beat developers over the head with UAC to make them see the light. (a game needing admin to run? seriously?)

    --
    BMO

  • by icebike (68054) on Sunday July 28, 2013 @06:31PM (#44408603)

    You missed the point--he's saying that root access might one day no longer be necessary, not that it'll become impossible to root an Android device.

    Exactly.
    The reason people root phones is to get around arbitrary restrictions imposed by the carriers or the manufacturers.
    Remove those restrictions, by providing APIs that allow users to do every legal thing, and virtually all reason to root disappear.

    When you can remove bloatware, change carriers, bypass carrier restrictions, change the UI, and maybe even change the OS, all without requiring root, what would be the point of rooting?

    There will still be those who will root simply because they can. These are the same kids that always ran their Linux machines at root because they were so 133t.

  • by lkcl (517947) <lkcl@lkcl.net> on Sunday July 28, 2013 @06:32PM (#44408613) Homepage

    there's an extremely common mistake made which needs to be pointed out: the clue is in the phrase "This kind of top-down thinking". the fundamental assumption is that there is a concept of "more privilege is required than before" to achieve privileged tasks. people imagine that security is hierarchical - that the further towards "the top" you get, the more access you are permitted. this is simply NOT TRUE. the classic example is "root", which is a drastic binary oversimplification which is simply very convenient.

    so, people invent new security systems, but they invent them without actual proper thought towards design, and they invent them thinking that this "top down" hierarchical approach is the only way. thus, new APIs have to be invented.

    there is another way: it's called SE/Linux (and there's a variant called SE/Android). SE/Linux follows the FLASK model, which basically says that based on the current context, the current application, that a new executable is given a COMPLETELY new security context, where the new privileges have to be explicitly given. the most important implication of this model is: it absolutely does not matter how "powerful" you were in the previous context - the one that fires up the new executable; the new one is literally a completely and utterly separate security context.

    to give an example: take a 5 Star General, and send him to a security base. when he gets there, standard security procedure: they take away his passport and all his credentials, and they give him a security pass (a new context). that security pass has a pre-prepared set of restricted corridors and rooms that the 5 Star General can go to. he can go to the conference room, and the bathroom. if he tries to leave without returning the security pass, he has no passport, and no papers.

    this incredibly powerful security model - FLASK basically fits on top of an OS *without* interfering with it. it's particularly fascinating because it can watch which programs exec() other programs, and it can watch what APIs those programs use.... *without* needing to actually modify those programs.

    basically what i'm saying is that the problem that cyanogen is trying to solve already has a way in which it can be solved, if the SE/Android team haven't already solved it. and that's because, under SE/Linux and SE/Android, you can operate both the normal "root access" system *in parallel* with SE/Linux. all you need to do is create a FLASK security context which restricts access to only those applications that *should* be accessing the restricted APIs. you don't need to modify the applications, nor do anything special to the underlying OS.

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