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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.

" Software on mobile devices may be out-of-date. Security patches for third-party applications are not always developed and released in a timely manner. In addition, mobile third-party applications, including web browsers, do not always notify consumers when updates are available. Unlike traditional web browsers, mobile browsers rarely get updates. Using outdated software increases the risk that an attacker may exploit vulnerabilities associated with these devices.

" Mobile devices often do not limit Internet connections. Many mobile devices do not have firewalls to limit connections. When the device is connected to a wide area network it uses communications ports to connect with other devices and the Internet. A hacker could access the mobile device through a port that is not secured. A firewall secures these ports and allows the user to choose what connections he wants to allow into the mobile device. Without a firewall, the mobile device may be open to intrusion through an unsecured communications port, and an intruder may be able to obtain sensitive information on the device and misuse it.

" Mobile devices may have unauthorized modifications. The process of modifying a mobile device to remove its limitations so consumers can add features (known as "jailbreaking" or "rooting") changes how security for the device is managed and could increase security risks. Jailbreaking allows users to gain access to the operating system of a device so as to permit the installation of unauthorized software functions and applications and/or to not be tied to a particular wireless carrier. While some users may jailbreak or root their mobile devices specifically to install security enhancements such as firewalls, others may simply be looking for a less expensive or easier way to install desirable applications. In the latter case, users face increased security risks, because they are bypassing the application vetting process established by the manufacturer and thus have less protection against inadvertently installing malware. Further, jailbroken devices may not receive notifications of security updates from the manufacturer and may require extra effort from the user to maintain up-to-date software.

" Communication channels may be poorly secured. Having communication channels, such as Bluetooth communications, "open" or in "discovery" mode (which allows the device to be seen by other Bluetooth-enabled devices so that connections can be made) could allow an attacker to install malware through that connection, or surreptitiously activate a microphone or camera to eavesdrop on the user. In addition, using unsecured public wireless Internet networks or WiFi spots could allow an attacker to connect to the device and view sensitive information.

The GAO report went on to state that connecting to an unsecured WiFi network could let an attacker access personal information from a device, putting users at risk for data and identity theft. One type of attack that exploits the WiFi network is known as man-in-the-middle, where an attacker inserts himself in the middle of the communication stream and steals information.

 

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