DoE builds huge Android network to test security

The Department of Energy’s Sandia National Laboratories has simulated 300,000 Android cellphones in order to study ways of making cellular networks more reliable and secure.

“Smartphones are now ubiquitous and used as general-purpose computing devices as much as desktop or laptop computers,” says Sandia’s David Fritz. “But even though they are easy targets, no one appears to be studying them at the scale we’re attempting.”

Dubbed MegaDroid, the project is carefully insulated from other networks at the labs and in the outside world. But it can be built up into a realistic computing environment that includes a full domain name service (DNS), an internet relay chat (IRC) server, web server and multiple subnets.

A key element is a ‘spoof’ GPS: simulated GPS data for a smartphone user in an urban environment. When its data is fed into the GPS input of an Android virtual machine, researchers get a rich emulation environment with which to analyze and study potential hacks.

The main challenge in studying Android-based machines, says the team, is the sheer complexity of the software. There’s about 14 million lines of code in the software itself, plus the same again from the Linux kernel on which it runs.

“It’s possible for something to go wrong on the scale of a big wireless network because of a coding mistake in an operating system or an application, and it’s very hard to diagnose and fix,” says Fritz.

“You can’t possibly read through 15 million lines of code and understand every possible interaction between all these devices and the network.”

Sandia now plans to share its work with other cyber researchers via open source.

“You could also extend the technology to other platforms besides Android,” says Keith Vanderveen, manager of Sandia’s Scalable and Secure Systems Research department.

“Apple’s iOS, for instance, could take advantage of our body of knowledge and the toolkit we’re developing.”

He says Sandia also plans to use MegaDroid to look at issues of data protection and data leakage, relevant to government agencies such as the departments of Defense and Homeland Security.