Posts Tagged ‘mobile device security’

broccoli-390001_1280You might not like broccoli but it’s good for you. This next bit of news fits in that same category.

Android device manufacturers are going to move to monthly patch cycles according to a report from Computerworld.

Yay? Yes, yay! Sure, it will be a pain to apply software updates with each new moon, especially with so many mobile devices (e.g. phones, tablets, etc.) running the OS, but it really is a good thing.

The reasoning is as follows …

  • all software has bugs (try as we might, this remains true for anything other than simple programs)
  • some percentage of those bugs are security-related (call it the law of averages)
  • therefore, all software needs security patches (the punch line)

Mobile phones don’t get a pass from these inexorable truths just because they fit in your pocket. For what it’s worth, neither to cars which I’ve written about here before as well. In fact, some of the higher end models these days have more lines of code than the Windows operating system so take a guess at how many security holes that translates into…

Apple hasAndroid-Army done a better job in this area because as both the hardware maker and OS supplier, they had 2/3’s of the equation under their control with only the carrier side to coordinate. The Android ecosystem has had 3 players that needed to sync up since the people that made the handsets (e.g. Samsung, LG, etc.) were different from those that supplied the OS (Google) which were different from the carriers (e.g. Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, etc.).

This dragon isn’t slayed yet as the precise details of how the Android army is going to amass against this issue have yet to be fully worked out but it’s a step in the right direction and one that is long overdue.

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jc-blog-iphoneSecurity professionals have been begging people to secure their mobile devices with a strong passcode for years. Yes, it’s a pain to have to type in all those characters on a tiny keyboard but the alternative is that anyone who can put their hands on your phone could read all your emails, texts, pics, view phone history, see everywhere you’ve gone and install malware that will keep track of all of this remotely (plus turn on your mic to listen on your conversations even when you aren’t making a call — ditto with the camera).

Maybe your life is an open book and you don’t care about privacy. Surely you care about your bank account, your reputation and your company’s confidential information, which, if not protected, could, at minimum, cost you your job (if not bankrupt the organization). Yes, a bad guy could use your phone’s mobile banking app to raid your funds or satisfy the second factor login requirement your financial institution’s web site requires for users of a web browser (assuming you bothered to set up those protections).

Many think, “OK, I’ll do a 4-digit PIN and that will be enough, right?” On the surface it sounds like a reasonable compromise. It’s not as inconvenient as an 8-character, alphanumeric passcode, but it still would mean that a hacker would have to try, on average, 5,000 different numeric combinations (half the total of 10,000 possibilities since the odds would be 50-50 of a correct guess at that point) to break in and who has that kind of time? Better still, the reasoning goes, “I’ve turned on that setting that automatically wipes the device after 10 incorrect tries, so the bad guy would have to be incredibly lucky to guess the right sequence that quickly.”

As the saying goes, “there’s nothing more dangerous than presumed security.

What is being assumed, in this case, is that someone won’t come along and build a box that could automate the process of entering all those possible PINs and, here’s the kicker, disconnect the power supply on the device before it has a chance to wipe the phone’s storage after an incorrect guess. In other words, unlimited tries with no penalty. And what if the process of trying all 10,000 combinations could be done in roughly 4.5 days (bearing in mind that this is the worst case for the bad guy and the best case could be just a few seconds)? And what if this box only cost about $300?

IMG_1602What this means is that anyone who steals your phone (or just has access to it for some reasonable period of time, such as while you are asleep) could do all the nasty stuff described above to your bank account, company, Twitter feed, emails, photos and so forth. Well, that scenario exists.

So, while it may be a royal pain to enter that complex, 8 character passcode, it is, unfortunately, necessary. As an alternative, if you have one of the newer iPhones, you could simplify things with a fingerprint scan using the built-in Touch ID sensor. No, it isn’t perfect either. Nothing in security ever is, but it
could be a better trade off than the venerable but broken, 4-digit PIN.

Screen Shot 2015-02-05 at 2.16.49 PMIn 2013 I did a presentation on social media threats at the OOP (Object Oriented Programming) conference in Munich. (You can see my presentation here.)

Well, the folks that ran the conference were nice enough to invite me back for this year’s event where I did a talk entitled “The Data Center in Your Pocket: Securing Mobile Devices.”

There’s logo_biggerno video this time around but I did do an interview for InfoQ.com on the general topic of mobile security, which you can find here, in case you’re interested.

For some, the mere fact that newer mobile phone models exist is reason enough to desire them. For others, the tried and true, trusty sidekick that has served them well (not to mention, that it took it 2 years to figure out how to use the thing) is more than adequate.

I confess to belonging to the first group because I love new technology. I also lean that direction because of my security roots.

As I mentioned in my previous post, old phones run old software and old software has old security bugs that haven’t been fixed.

In keeping with that theme, Graham Cluely recently wrote a thought provoking post entitled “If You Care About Security, Throw Away Your iPhone 4 Right Now.” OK, it’s a bit alarmist, but the underlying point is valid.

This isn’t picking on Apple because Android has the same issue. The point is that while newer doesn’t always mean better, when it comes to security you need to remember that …

Goldilocksold phone = unsupported = security bugs that won’t ever get fixed

Of course, the flip side of this is that …

new phone = not fully tested = new security bugs (that will, hopefully, one day get fixed)

Oh, and, by the way, the same holds true for operating systems, apps, etc.

So, what are you supposed to do? Balance is the key. Too old or too new is always going to be riskier than “just right.” I think Goldilocks said that in the sequel …

Unlike fine wine or cheese, old software doesn’t get better with age, it just starts to smell bad. Certainly it can “mature” as upgrades and patches are applied but if you simply “install it and forget it” then you could be setting yourself up for a world of trouble.

Recently Microsoft withdrew support for an old standby, Windows XP, and, as a result, pushed many to upgrade or face the risk of exposure to an increasing list of unpatched security vulnerabilities. Many grumbled about having to make the change but it was not unexpected. It costs vendors lots of money to support any operating system so it behooves them to support the fewest number they can or risk draining precious resources that could be spent developing newer versions with even better features demanded by the marketplace.

Windows XP is old in OS terms — nearly 13 years old, in fact. So, the end of the ride was inevitable, even if not fully appreciated by everyone.

But what about, say, Windows 95? It would be hard to feel a lot of sympathy for a user still running that moldy oldie if their system got hacked. After all, that was essentially 8 generations ago as a desktop OS. There are tons of security bugs that have been discovered in it since its introduction and, while most of been fixed, there are plenty that never will be since it was withdrawn from support a long time ago. Therefore, anyone still running Win95 isn’t likely to get a lot of sympathy given the known risks of doing so, right?

What about someone doing essentially the same thing on their mobile phone? Smart phones have very complex operating systems and we are finding more and more security holes in them every day. What would you say to someone still running the Win95 equivalent of Android? Good luck!

Well, it turns out that about 20% of Android devices world wide are essentially doing just that. That’s roughly what Android 2.x matches up to if you compare its generations to those of Windows. How many bugs do you think are sitting around on those aging handsets just waiting to be exploited? A lot more than their owners are aware of, I suspect.

To be fair, mobile OS generations have been rolling out faster than desktop OSs lately so the time lines won’t match up perfectly, but the truth is that there are a scary number of mobile devices that are wide open to attack because they are running old software.

Why not simply update the OS on these devices? Because, in many cases you can’t. Unlike the PC world where a single vendor (i.e. Microsoft) can push out a new OS when they like and users can update whenever they choose (for the most part), the Android world involves a sometimes unholy trinity of handset makers, Google (who makes the Android OS) and the carriers. If you want to update your phone you have to get the sun, moon and stars to align so that all three parties allow it and that has proven much harder and slower than most people would like. Since change is happening so rapidly in the mobile space, it is hard for old handsets to keep up with the demands of new OS versions plus handset makers have a stronger incentive to get you to upgrade than they do to keep you on an old device.

What all this adds up to is a lot of handsets with OS levels that have long since passed from stale to downright rotten and since hackers are drawn to vulnerable systems like ants to a picnic, it would not at all be unreasonable to expect a buggy mess as a result.

The Apple/iOS ecosystem is a little less complicated because you have only a two-headed monster (Apple and the carrier) to deal with. This results is fewer options for users but considerably less software rot.

More freedom/choice or more security? I actually use both but hope that whichever one you choose, you at least do so with your eyes wide open…

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s a link to a posting I did for IBM’s Security Intelligence Blog on the perils of ignoring the whole Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) trend. Enjoy …

http://securityintelligence.com/byod-why-you-better-not-ignored-it/

 

 

In my last post I wrote about an attack that has come to be known as juice jacking in which you use a USB charger, likely at a public charging station, to keep your cell phone or tablet going a little longer and, without your knowledge, someone has modified the charger to do more than just give your device a boost. 

The problem is that the USB connection can, in addition, to providing juice, also transfer data. This means that while you are getting a charge  someone could be stealing your sensitive data or planting a virus on your trusted electronic companion.

So, what should you do? You could simply avoid all USB chargers, which would be extreme, or just avoid all USB chargers that aren’t yours, which is inconvenient. Or you could use a “USB condom” for safe charging.

Let me be clear, I have not tried one of these devices (nor have I needed to) so I don’t know how effective they are but, at least in principle, the idea is interesting. What this device does is disable all the connections that involve data transfer leaving only the charging pathway open. A simple idea that could be quite effective.

Do you need one? The answer to that question has more to do with your tolerance for risk than any objective, technical criteria so I’ll let you decide on that one. Either way, it’s interesting food for thought…