Bypassing restrictions on your Android devices opens them to attack, UCR researchers find

Android rooting has become increasingly popular in recent years, and no, we’re not talking about cheering for your favorite operating system. Android rooting is the process of allowing an Android phone or tablet to bypass restrictions set by carriers, operating systems or hardware manufacturers.

In a first-of-its-kind study of the Android root ecosystem, Zhiyun Qian, an assistant professor of computer science and engineering at the Bourns College of Engineering, and two student researchers set out to discover:

  • How many variations of Android root exploits (i.e. malicious code)  exist publicly?
  • How do they differ from ones offered by commercial root providers?
  • How difficult is it to abuse the exploits?

Rooting comes with plenty of advantages. With full control of the device, users can do everything from remove unwanted pre-installed software, enjoy additional functionalities offered by specialized apps and run paid apps for free. But it also comes with potentially significant disadvantages, Qian and his team have found.

Few of the exploits could be detected by mobile antivirus software and there are systematic weaknesses and flaws in the security protection measures offered by commercial root providers that make them susceptible to being stolen and easily repackaged in malware.

“This is a highly unregulated area that we found is ripe for abuse by malware authors looking to gain access to all kinds of personal information,” Qian said. “And, unfortunately, there is not much users can do except hope that a security update gets pushed out quickly by Google, vendors and carriers, which they usually aren’t.”

Qian outlined the findings in a paper, “Android Root and its Providers: A Double-Edged Sword,” which he presented at the 22nd ACM Conference on Computer and Communications Security in Denver from Oct. 12 to 16. The paper is co-authored by two graduate students working with Qian: Hang Zhang and Dongdong She.  Learn more about the study here. 

Study shows big solar has environmental impacts

Among renewable energy systems, solar energy has high potential for mitigating climate change, resulting in diverse technologies that capture the sun’s thermal energy.California Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation on Oct. 7 aimed at increasing renewable-energy generation.

But big solar is far from transmission and demand loads, too close to protected areas and could create serious environmental impacts, concludes a new study led by researchers at UCR.

“Our study, which focuses on California, shows that utility-scale solar energy development can be a driver of land-use and land-cover change, which is a source of greenhouse gas emissions itself,” said Rebecca R. Hernandez, the lead researcher and a former junior specialist at UC Riverside who worked closely on the research with Michael F. Allen, the director of the Center for Conservation Biology (CCB). “We see this happening if solar energy power plants are sited in natural habitats, in lieu of areas already impacted by humans—such as on commercial rooftops or over parking lots.”

The research team is currently studying solar energy in the Central Valley in greater depth, led by Madison K. Hoffacker, a co-author on the study and a junior specialist in CCB, to understand its potential for development and the extent to which farmers and agricultural landowners are putting down the plow and raising solar panels.

“We are seeing landowners, particularly in the Central Valley, shift from harvesting crops to harvesting the sun,” Hoffacker said. Read more about their findings here. 

Researchers Propose Novel Solution to HIV Protection

Enemas are commonly used by men who have sex with men (MSM) and transwomen (TW) before sexual intercourse. But these groups are vulnerable to HIV and a host of other sexually transmitted infections because enemas – even those that use tap water – can seriously damage the thin tissue lining the rectum, allowing for easier transmission of harmful viruses and bacteria.

A research group that worked recently with Peruvian MSM and TW now proposes an approach: a rectal microbicide formulated as an enema to prevent HIV and possibly other sexually transmitted infections.

“A douche-based rectal microbicide that is safe and effective could play an important role by providing another HIV prevention option for these highly vulnerable groups,” said Brandon Brown, an assistant professor in UCR’s School of Medicine, who led the research project. “In view of the expanding global HIV epidemics in MSM and TW, there is an urgent and immediate need for novel HIV prevention options, such as the douche-based rectal microbicides we propose, that can be readily incorporated into existing sexual practices.”

Study results appeared online this week in AIDS and Behavior.

For the study, the team led by Brown examined during February 2012-February 2013 the prevalence of enema use among 415 MSM and 68 TW in Lima, Peru. Participants completed a self-administered interview on rectal douching practices to inform rectal microbicide douche development. In the previous six months, 18 percent of participants reported rectal douching, and those who reported douching were mainly those who had some receptive sexual role.

“We found that men who douched prior to sex did it primarily for hygiene and pleasure. We should capitalize on these reasons to increase this practice and eventually include a rectal microbicide for HIV prevention,” Brown said. Read more about the study here.

Pessimism may be the best way to cope with uncertainty

Is it possible to cope with distress during what could be a life-altering period of uncertainty?

UCR psychology professor Kate Sweeny and a team of researchers tested two definitions of what she calls “waiting well” by studying the behavior of law graduates awaiting and receiving their results on the California Bar Examination.

The first question was whether people can wait in a way that reduces distress during the waiting period. The second question was whether people can wait in a manner that eases the pain of bad news, or increases the thrill of good news, after the news has been delivered.

Published in the journal Emotion, Sweeny discovered that people were largely unsuccessful at managing their distress during the waiting period, despite their best efforts.

She also found that people who embraced an optimistic outlook and who experienced little anxiety during the time of uncertainty felt hopeless in the face of bad news, and were underwhelmed by good news. But participants who reported a particularly agonizing wait for their bar exam results got a boost when the news was good, and took less of a blow when the news was bad.

“Most coping strategies were ineffective for reducing distress associated with uncertainty – sometimes even backfiring,” said Sweeny. “But thankfully, people who suffer through a period of uncertainty respond more productively to bad news, and more joyfully to good news.”

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