Posts Tagged ‘smartphone security’

I’ve written here previously about the increasing need for attention in the area of securing mobile phones. It has taken some time but it seems we have reached a place where most everyone realizes that if they want to connect a desktop or laptop to the Internet that they also need to take precautions against malware, spyware and so on, but we aren’t there yet when it comes to intuitively understanding the risks associated with mobile devices.

According to at least one estimate there are now more than 1 billion (with a “b”) smartphones in use around the world and we are on pace to reach a point where there are more of them (smartphones = 10 billion) than us (people = 7.3 billion) by 2016.

And what are all these smartphones but tiny, portable computers with wireless connections? Meaning, they can be hacked just like traditional PCs can. In fact, going mobile increases the risk by adding in additional variables since these devices are more easily lost and stolen.

Slowly the level of awareness is coming around to the point where eventually everyone will realize that smartphones need security just like laptops and desktops do.

But what about tablets? Same song, next verse. After all, what is an Android tablet other than a larger version of an Android phone that can’t make cell calls, and what is an Android phone other than a PC that can?

In other words, if it computes it can be hacked and if it can be hacked you probably ought to think about protecting it. Tablets are not exempt from security risks any more than smartphones or laptops are.

In today’s Raleigh News & Observer “Stump the Geeks” column, Tyler Dukes asked me to comment on the need for tablet security. You can see my comments along with some interesting study results from NC State University (my alma mater) in this area.

Ignorance may be bliss but when it comes to security it also leads to disaster so I’d say a little less bliss is better in this case…

 A story that should be no surprise to anyone (but, no doubt will catch many off guard), BBC News is reporting that, unbeknownst to their owners, Android phones are being used as spam relays.

Yes, that smart phone that goes with you everywhere you go, fits easily in either a pocket or a purse, and has become an indispensable tool of modern life is, in fact, a small, fully functional computer. As such, it can not only place and receive calls but also do most the great things that we’ve come to expect from a PC (e.g. send/receive email, browse the web, run apps, play music, etc.). In addition, it can do most of the really awful things that PC can do as well such as crash at inopportune times, leak personal information and get infected with viruses.

Although, the amount of malware affecting smart phones to date is relatively small as compared to PCs, the threat is not insignificant and will only continue to grow.

So it shouldn’t surprise us when we read that infected versions of popular apps like Angry Birds are beginning to circulate. The latest twist is just a variation on a theme we learned about more than a decade ago with the advent of so called “zombies” or “bots” — systems under the control of a remote attacker that can be coordinated to form an army of denial of service attackers or spam senders. If you could do it on a PC, there’s no reason to believe it couldn’t (and wouldn’t) be done on a smart phone and, in fact, now it has been.

What can you do to protect yourself from being an unwilling accomplice and avoid a monstrously large cell phone bill if the zombie happens to exceed your monthly data limit or, potentially worse, leverages premium SMS text messaging services without your knowledge?

  1. Don’t install apps from untrusted sources.

    Even the official Google Play store is known to have more than its share of sketchy apps but if you veer off into some lesser known (and less reliable) sources, you are really playing with fire.

  2. Don’t install apps that you don’t really need.

    What constitutes “need” vs. “nice to have” is an endless debate topic that varies from person to person. Suffice it say, if that by limiting the number of apps you have to those that you will really use, you will have reduced your risk by effectively reducing the attack surface.

  3. Check the permissions before granting access.

    One of the nice features of Androids over iPhones is that they actually tell you during the install process what resources on your phone the app is going to access. At that point you can choose to proceed or abort the install based upon your tolerance for risk. Unfortunately, there isn’t much granularity in this process as you can’t see the details of how these resources will be used or have the ability to selectively grant access to some but not others but at least it’s a start.

  4. Install anti-malware.

    Yes, they have this for smart phones now. It’s not a perfect solution and some will argue that it’s unnecessary given the relatively small number of malware examples on smart phones but it wasn’t all that long ago that people were saying the same thing about Macs and, before that, PCs and time eventually proved them wrong.

Apple does a good job of vetting apps before they make it into their app store but that doesn’t mean there is no risk with that option either as there have been some cases where bad stuff slipped through.

Bottom line: If it does the good things a computer can do then it can also do the bad things a computer can do and that means you need to be mindful of security threats to not only desktops, laptops and servers, but also to phones and tablets. Can TVs and cars be far behind?

Here’s an interview I did earlier this week at the IBM Impact Conference in Las Vegas with developerWorks Managing Editor, Tom Young, on the subject of mobile device security.