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

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.

Combine the lack of security with the fact that mobile devices are being targeted by cybercriminals and you have a bad situation. For example, the number of variants of malicious software aimed at mobile devices has reportedly risen from about 14,000 to 40,000 or about 185% in less than a year, the GAO stated.

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"Mobile devices face an array of threats that take advantage of numerous vulnerabilities commonly found in such devices. These vulnerabilities can be the result of inadequate technical controls, but they can also result from the poor security practices of consumers," the GAO stated. "Private [companies] and relevant federal agencies have taken steps to improve the security of mobile devices, including making certain controls available for consumers to use if they wish and promulgating information about recommended mobile security practices. However, security controls are not always consistently implemented on mobile devices, and it is unclear whether consumers are aware of the importance of enabling security controls on their devices and adopting recommended practices."

The GAO report came up with a list of mobile vulnerabilities it says are common to all mobile platforms and it offered a number of possible fixes for the weaknesses: From the report:

" Mobile devices often do not have passwords enabled. Mobile devices often lack passwords to authenticate users and control access to data stored on the devices. Many devices have the technical capability to support passwords, personal identification numbers (PIN), or pattern screen locks for authentication. Some mobile devices also include a biometric reader to scan a fingerprint for authentication. However, anecdotal information indicates that consumers seldom employ these mechanisms. Additionally, if users do use a password or PIN they often choose passwords or PINs that can be easily determined or bypassed, such as 1234 or 0000. Without passwords or PINs to lock the device, there is increased risk that stolen or lost phones' information could be accessed by unauthorized users who could view sensitive information and misuse mobile devices.

" Two-factor authentication is not always used when conducting sensitive transactions on mobile devices. According to studies, consumers generally use static passwords instead of two-factor authentication when conducting online sensitive transactions while using mobile devices. Using static passwords for authentication has security drawbacks: passwords can be guessed, forgotten, written down and stolen, or eavesdropped. Two-factor authentication generally provides a higher level of security than traditional passwords and PINs, and this higher level may be important for sensitive transactions. Two-factor refers to an authentication system in which users are required to authenticate using at least two different "factors" something you know, something you have, or something you are before being granted access. Mobile devices can be used as a second factor in some two-factor authentication schemes. The mobile device can generate pass codes, or the codes can be sent via a text message to the phone. Without two-factor authentication, increased risk exists that unauthorized users could gain access to sensitive information and misuse mobile devices.

" 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.

" 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.

So what can be done to secure mobile devices? The GAO report offers a number of ideas including:

" Enable user authentication: Devices can be configured to require passwords or PINs to gain access. In addition, the password field can be masked to prevent it from being observed, and the devices can activate idle-time screen locking to prevent unauthorized access.

" Enable two-factor authentication for sensitive transactions: Two-factor authentication can be used when conducting sensitive transactions on mobile devices. Two-factor authentication provides a higher level of security than traditional passwords. Two-factor refers to an authentication system in which users are required to authenticate using at least two different "factors" something you know, something you have, or something you are before being granted access. Mobile devices themselves can be used as a second factor in some two-factor authentication schemes used for remote access. The mobile device can generate pass codes, or the codes can be sent via a text message to the phone. Two-factor authentication may be important when sensitive transactions occur, such as for mobile banking or conducting financial transactions.

" Verify the authenticity of downloaded applications: Procedures can be implemented for assessing the digital signatures of downloaded applications to ensure that they have not been tampered with.

" Install antimalware capability: Antimalware protection can be installed to protect against malicious applications, viruses, spyware, infected secure digital cards,b and malware-based attacks. In addition, such capabilities can protect against unwanted (spam) voice messages, text messages, and e-mail attachments.

" Install a firewall: A personal firewall can protect against unauthorized connections by intercepting both incoming and outgoing connection attempts and blocking or permitting them based on a list of rules.

" Install security updates: Software updates can be automatically transferred from the manufacturer or carrier directly to a mobile device. Procedures can be implemented to ensure these updates are transmitted promptly.

" Remotely disable lost or stolen devices: Remote disabling is a feature for lost or stolen devices that either locks the device or completely erases its contents remotely. Locked devices can be unlocked subsequently by the user if they are recovered.

" Enable encryption for data stored on device or memory card: File encryption protects sensitive data stored on mobile devices and memory cards. Devices can have built-in encryption capabilities or use commercially available encryption tools.

" Enable whitelisting: Whitelisting is a software control that permits only known safe applications to execute commands.

" Establish a mobile device security policy: Security policies define the rules, principles, and practices that determine how an organization treats mobile devices, whether they are issued by the organization or owned by individuals. Policies should cover areas such as roles and responsibilities, infrastructure security, device security, and security assessments. By establishing policies that address these areas, agencies can create a framework for applying practices, tools, and training to help support the security of wireless networks.

" Provide mobile device security training: Training employees in an organization's mobile security policies can help to ensure that mobile devices are configured, operated, and used in a secure and appropriate manner.

" Establish a deployment plan: Following a well-designed deployment plan helps to ensure that security objectives are met.

" Perform risk assessments: Risk analysis identifies vulnerabilities and threats, enumerates potential attacks, assesses their likelihood of success, and estimates the potential damage from successful attacks on mobile devices.

" Perform configuration control and management: Configuration management ensures that mobile devices are protected against the introduction of improper modifications before, during, and after deployment.

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8 and on Facebook.

Read more about anti-malware in Network World's Anti-malware section.


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