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The 10 most common mobile security problems and how you can fight them

Michael Cooney | Sept. 20, 2012
When it comes to security, most mobile devices are a target waiting to be attacked. That's pretty much the conclusion of a report to Congress on the status of the security of mobile devices this week by watchdogs at the Government Accountability Office.

" Wireless transmissions are not always encrypted. Information such as e-mails sent by a mobile device is usually not encrypted while in transit. In addition, many applications do not encrypt the data they transmit and receive over the network, making it easy for the data to be intercepted. For example, if an application is transmitting data over an unencrypted WiFi network using http (rather than secure http), the data can be easily intercepted. When a wireless transmission is not encrypted, data can be easily intercepted.

" Mobile devices may contain malware. Consumers may download applications that contain malware. Consumers download malware unknowingly because it can be disguised as a game, security patch, utility, or other useful application. It is difficult for users to tell the difference between a legitimate application and one containing malware. For example, an application could be repackaged with malware and a consumer could inadvertently download it onto a mobile device. the data can be easily intercepted. When a wireless transmission is not encrypted, data can be easily intercepted by eavesdroppers, who may gain unauthorized access to sensitive information.

" Mobile devices often do not use security software. Many mobile devices do not come preinstalled with security software to protect against malicious applications, spyware, and malware-based attacks. Further, users do not always install security software, in part because mobile devices often do not come preloaded with such software. While such software may slow operations and affect battery life on some mobile devices, without it, the risk may be increased that an attacker could successfully distribute malware such as viruses, Trojans, spyware, and spam to lure users into revealing passwords or other confidential information.

" Operating systems may be out-of-date. Security patches or fixes for mobile devices' operating systems are not always installed on mobile devices in a timely manner. It can take weeks to months before security updates are provided to consumers' devices. Depending on the nature of the vulnerability, the patching process may be complex and involve many parties. For example, Google develops updates to fix security vulnerabilities in the Android OS, but it is up to device manufacturers to produce a device-specific update incorporating the vulnerability fix, which can take time if there are proprietary modifications to the device's software. Once a manufacturer produces an update, it is up to each carrier to test it and transmit the updates to consumers' devices. However, carriers can be delayed in providing the updates because they need time to test whether they interfere with other aspects of the device or the software installed on it.

In addition, mobile devices that are older than two years may not receive security updates because manufacturers may no longer support these devices. Many manufacturers stop supporting smartphones as soon as 12 to 18 months after their release. Such devices may face increased risk if manufacturers do not develop patches for newly discovered vulnerabilities.

 

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