Qualcomm is promising to improve security and privacy on high-end smartphones with Snapdragon Smart Protect, which uses on-device machine learning to help detect zero-day malware.

The popularity of smartphones has started to catch the imagination of hackers, resulting in the need for better protection. Qualcomm’s latest contribution is Snapdragon Smart Protect, which the company announced on Monday.

Smart Protect looks at what’s going on in the smartphone and warns about what it thinks are abnormal behaviors to protect users. At its most basic, that could be an application that takes a photo even though the display is off or an application sending an SMS without any user interaction. 

“We can look at many different aspects of what applications are doing; what resources they request, what system calls they make, and then look at a sequence of events and decide if something is malicious,” said Asaf Ashkenazi, senior director of security product management at Qualcomm.

The first processor to get Smart Protect is the Snapdragon 820, which will show up in high-end smartphones during the first half of next year. Smart Protect will also be used in future processors for cheaper devices.

Smart Protect only works with Android. It is powered by one of the key new features in the Snapdragon 820, the Zeroth platform, which Qualcomm describes as the company’s first cognitive computing engine.

The additional power consumed by Smart Protect is tiny, Ashkenazi said: "It's so low we have trouble measuring it."

Smart Protect also makes use of ARM’s TrustZone platform, which allows for apps to run separately from the operating system. This hardware-based layer makes it more difficult for hackers to access the features protected by TrustZone.

However, just because the Snapdragon 820 has Smart Protect built-in doesn't mean all phones powered by the processor will make use of the functionality. Qualcomm provides the APIs and a reference user interface, but smartphone manufacturers will have to build the final user interface themselves.

Getting the user interface right is almost as important as the technology itself, because the protection might be compromised if users don't understand the warnings it presents. The number of so-called false positives, which is when security software thinks something is a threat when it isn’t, will also decide how successful Smart Protect is.

Qualcomm is also working with mobile security providers like AVG, Avast, and Lookout to make Smart Protect capabilities available within their apps.

It would be naive to think that Qualcomm's Snapdragon Smart Protect will be able to detect all threats directed at smartphones. After all, technologies that should be able to detect zero-day vulnerabilities have been around for a long time in networks, and hackers are still wreaking havoc.

However, the combination of signature-based security software, technologies such Qualcomm's Smart Protect and vendors working harder to plug vulnerabilities should help at least make life a little more difficult for the bad guys.