In Android 11 we continue to increase the security of the Android platform. We have moved to safer default settings, migrated to a hardened memory allocator, and expanded the use of compiler mitigations that defend against classes of vulnerabilities and frustrate exploitation techniques.

Initializing memory

We’ve enabled forms of automatic memory initialization in both Android 11’s userspace and the Linux kernel. Uninitialized memory bugs occur in C/C++ when memory is used without having first been initialized to a known safe value. These types of bugs can be confusing, and even the term “uninitialized” is misleading. Uninitialized may seem to imply that a variable has a random value. In reality it isn’t random. It has whatever value was previously placed there. This value may be predictable or even attacker controlled. Unfortunately this behavior can result in a serious vulnerability such as information disclosure bugs like ASLR bypasses, or control flow hijacking via a stack or heap spray. Another possible side effect of using uninitialized values is advanced compiler optimizations may transform the code unpredictably, as this is considered undefined behavior by the relevant C standards.

In practice, uses of uninitialized memory are difficult to detect. Such errors may sit in the codebase unnoticed for years if the memory happens to be initialized with some “safe” value most of the time. When uninitialized memory results in a bug, it is often challenging to identify the source of the error, particularly if it is rarely triggered.

Eliminating an entire class of such bugs is a lot more effective than hunting them down individually. Automatic stack variable initialization relies on a feature in the Clang compiler which allows choosing initializing local variables with either zeros or a pattern.

Initializing to zero provides safer defaults for strings, pointers, indexes, and sizes. The downsides of zero init are less-safe defaults for return values, and exposing fewer bugs where the underlying code relies on zero initialization. Pattern initialization tends to expose more bugs and is generally safer for return values and less safe for strings, pointers, indexes, and sizes.

Initializing Userspace:

Automatic stack variable initialization is enabled throughout the entire Android userspace. During the development of Android 11, we initially selected pattern in order to uncover bugs relying on zero init and then moved to zero-init after a few months for increased safety. Platform OS developers can build with `AUTO_PATTERN_INITIALIZE=true m` if they want help uncovering bugs relying on zero init.

Initializing the Kernel:

Automatic stack and heap initialization were recently merged in the upstream Linux kernel. We have made these features available on earlier versions of Android’s kernel including 4.14, 4.19, and 5.4. These features enforce initialization of local variables and heap allocations with known values that cannot be controlled by attackers and are useless when leaked. Both features result in a performance overhead, but also prevent undefined behavior improving both stability and security.

For kernel stack initialization we adopted the CONFIG_INIT_STACK_ALL from upstream Linux. It currently relies on Clang pattern initialization for stack variables, although this is subject to change in the future.

Heap initialization is controlled by two boot-time flags, init_on_alloc and init_on_free, with the former wiping freshly allocated heap objects with zeroes (think s/kmalloc/kzalloc in the whole kernel) and the latter doing the same before the objects are freed (this helps to reduce the lifetime of security-sensitive data). init_on_alloc is a lot more cache-friendly and has smaller performance impact (within 2%), therefore it has been chosen to protect Android kernels.

Scudo is now Android’s default native allocator

In Android 11, Scudo replaces jemalloc as the default native allocator for Android. Scudo is a hardened memory allocator designed to help detect and mitigate memory corruption bugs in the heap, such as:

Scudo does not fully prevent exploitation but it does add a number of sanity checks which are effective at strengthening the heap against some memory corruption bugs.

It also proactively organizes the heap in a way that makes exploitation of memory corruption more difficult, by reducing the predictability of the allocation patterns, and separating allocations by sizes.

In our internal testing, Scudo has already proven its worth by surfacing security and stability bugs that were previously undetected.

Finding Heap Memory Safety Bugs in the Wild (GWP-ASan)

Android 11 introduces GWP-ASan, an in-production heap memory safety bug detection tool that’s integrated directly into the native allocator Scudo. GWP-ASan probabilistically detects and provides actionable reports for heap memory safety bugs when they occur, works on 32-bit and 64-bit processes, and is enabled by default for system processes and system apps.

GWP-ASan is also available for developer applications via a one line opt-in in an app’s AndroidManifest.xml, with no complicated build support or recompilation of prebuilt libraries necessary.

Software Tag-Based KASAN

Continuing work on adopting the Arm Memory Tagging Extension (MTE) in Android, Android 11 includes support for kernel HWASAN, also known as Software Tag-Based KASAN. Userspace HWASAN is supported since Android 10.

KernelAddressSANitizer (KASAN) is a dynamic memory error detector designed to find out-of-bound and use-after-free bugs in the Linux kernel. Its Software Tag-Based mode is a software implementation of the memory tagging concept for the kernel. Software Tag-Based KASAN is available in 4.14, 4.19 and 5.4 Android kernels, and can be enabled with the CONFIG_KASAN_SW_TAGS kernel configuration option. Currently Tag-Based KASAN only supports tagging of slab memory; support for other types of memory (such as stack and globals) will be added in the future.

Compared to Generic KASAN, Tag-Based KASAN has significantly lower memory requirements (see this kernel commit for details), which makes it usable on dog food testing devices. Another use case for Software Tag-Based KASAN is checking the existing kernel code for compatibility with memory tagging. As Tag-Based KASAN is based on similar concepts as the future in-kernel MTE support, making sure that kernel code works with Tag-Based KASAN will ease in-kernel MTE integration in the future.

Expanding existing compiler mitigations

We’ve continued to expand the compiler mitigations that have been rolled out in prior releases as well. This includes adding both integer and bounds sanitizers to some core libraries that were lacking them. For example, the libminikin fonts library and the libui rendering library are now bounds sanitized. We’ve hardened the NFC stack by implementing both integer overflow sanitizer and bounds sanitizer in those components.

In addition to the hard mitigations like sanitizers, we also continue to expand our use of CFI as an exploit mitigation. CFI has been enabled in Android’s networking daemon, DNS resolver, and more of our core javascript libraries like libv8 and the PacProcessor.

The effectiveness of our software codec sandbox

Prior to the Release of Android 10 we announced a new constrained sandbox for software codecs. We’re really pleased with the results. Thus far, Android 10 is the first Android release since the infamous stagefright vulnerabilities in Android 5.0 with zero critical-severity vulnerabilities in the media frameworks.

Thank you to Jeff Vander Stoep, Alexander Potapenko, Stephen Hines, Andrey Konovalov, Mitch Phillips, Ivan Lozano, Kostya Kortchinsky, Christopher Ferris, Cindy Zhou, Evgenii Stepanov, Kevin Deus, Peter Collingbourne, Elliott Hughes, Kees Cook and Ken Chen for their contributions to this post.

This blog post is part of a weekly series for #11WeeksOfAndroid. For each #11WeeksOfAndroid, we’re diving into a key area so you don’t miss anything. This week, we spotlighted Privacy and Security; here’s a look at what you should know.

mobile security illustration

Privacy and security is core to how we design Android, and with every new release we increase our investment in this space. Android 11 continues to make important strides in these areas, and this week we’ll be sharing a series of updates and resources about Android privacy and security. But first, let’s take a quick look at some of the most important changes we’ve made in Android 11 to protect user privacy and make the platform more secure.

As shared in the “All things privacy in Android 11” video, we’re giving users even more control over sensitive permissions. Throughout the development of this release, we have engaged deeply and frequently with our developer community to design these features in a balanced way – amplifying user privacy while minimizing developer impact. Let’s go over some of these features:

One-time permission: In Android 10, we introduced a granular location permission that allows users to limit access to location only when an app is in use (aka foreground only). When presented with the new runtime permissions options, users choose foreground only location more than 50% of the time. This demonstrated to us that users really wanted finer controls for permissions. So in Android 11, we’ve introduced one time permissions that let users give an app access to the device microphone, camera, or location, just that one time. As an app developer, there are no changes that you need to make to your app for it to work with one time permissions, and the app can request permissions again the next time the app is used. Learn more about building privacy-friendly apps with these new changes in this video.

Background location: In Android 10 we added a background location usage reminder so users can see how apps are using this sensitive data on a regular basis. Users who interacted with the reminder either downgraded or denied the location permission over 75% of the time. In addition, we have done extensive research and believe that there are very few legitimate use cases for apps to require access to location in the background.

In Android 11, background location will no longer be a permission that a user can grant via a run time prompt and it will require a more deliberate action. If your app needs background location, the system will ensure that the app first asks for foreground location. The app can then broaden its access to background location through a separate permission request, which will cause the system to take the user to Settings in order to complete the permission grant.

In February, we announced that Google Play developers will need to get approval to access background location in their app to prevent misuse. We’re giving developers more time to make changes and won’t be enforcing the policy for existing apps until 2021. Check out this helpful video to find possible background location usage in your code.

Permissions auto-reset: Most users tend to download and install over 60 apps on their device but interact with only a third of these apps on a regular basis. If users haven’t used an app that targets Android 11 for an extended period of time, the system will “auto-reset” all of the granted runtime permissions associated with the app and notify the user. The app can request the permissions again the next time the app is used. If you have an app that has a legitimate need to retain permissions, you can prompt users to turn this feature OFF for your app in Settings.

Data access auditing APIs: Android encourages developers to limit their access to sensitive data, even if they have been granted permission to do so. In Android 11, developers will have access to new APIs that will give them more transparency into their app’s usage of private and protected data. The APIs will enable apps to track when the system records the app’s access to private user data.

Scoped Storage: In Android 10, we introduced scoped storage which provides a filtered view into external storage, giving access to app-specific files and media collections. This change protects user privacy by limiting broad access to shared storage in many ways including changing the storage permission to only give read access to photos, videos and music and improving app storage attribution. Since Android 10, we’ve incorporated developer feedback and made many improvements to help developers adopt scoped storage, including: updated permission UI to enhance user experience, direct file path access to media to improve compatibility with existing libraries, updated APIs for modifying media, Manage External Storage permission to enable select use cases that need broad files access, and protected external app directories. In Android 11, scoped storage will be mandatory for all apps that target API level 30. Learn more in this video and check out the developer documentation for further details.

Google Play system updates: Google Play system updates were introduced with Android 10 as part of Project Mainline. Their main benefit is to increase the modularity and granularity of platform subsystems within Android so we can update core OS components without needing a full OTA update from your phone manufacturer. Earlier this year, thanks to Project Mainline, we were able to quickly fix a critical vulnerability in the media decoding subsystem. Android 11 adds new modules, and maintains the security properties of existing ones. For example, Conscrypt, which provides cryptographic primitives, maintained its FIPS validation in Android 11 as well.

BiometricPrompt API: Developers can now use the BiometricPrompt API to specify the biometric authenticator strength required by their app to unlock or access sensitive parts of the app. We are planning to add this to the Jetpack Biometric library to allow for backward compatibility and will share further updates on this work as it progresses.

Identity Credential API: This will unlock new use cases such as mobile drivers licences, National ID, and Digital ID. It’s being built by our security team to ensure this information is stored safely, using security hardware to secure and control access to the data, in a way that enhances user privacy as compared to traditional physical documents. We’re working with various government agencies and industry partners to make sure that Android 11 is ready for such digital-first identity experiences.

Thank you for your flexibility and feedback as we continue to build an increasingly more private and secure platform. You can learn about more features in the Android 11 Beta developer site. You can also learn about general best practices related to privacy and security.

Please follow Android Developers on Twitter and Youtube to catch helpful content and materials in this area all this week.


You can find the entire playlist of #11WeeksOfAndroid video content here, and learn more about each week here. We’ll continue to spotlight new areas each week, so keep an eye out and follow us on Twitter and YouTube. Thanks so much for letting us be a part of this experience with you!