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Which smartphone is the most secure?

As Spencer McIntyre of SecureState explains, there are unique differences and threats specific to each smartphone

These days, it is almost impossible to meet someone who doesn't own a cell phone. More specifically, smartphones, whether it be the trendy iPhone, corporate favored Blackberry or modern Windows Mobile, almost everyone has joined the smartphone frenzy -- and with good reason. A smartphone offers more advanced computing ability and connectivity than a contemporary phone.

Just like a handheld computer, most of the population relies on their operating system to multitask the demands of work, personal life and finances. However, many Smartphone users forget about the risks of malware on these crucial devices. In fact, a study from Rutgers's University disclosed that malicious software for cell phones could pose a greater risk for consumer's personal and financial well-being than computer viruses.

[Also read about security and privacy apps for smartphones ]

Clearly, there is a need for greater protection of cell phone software and greater awareness of cell phone vulnerabilities from owners, especially when it comes to what kind of operating system you are using. There are unique differences and threats specific to each Smartphone. Here are some important key points that consumers should consider to protect their mobile operating systems.

iPhone

There is a lot to be found regarding this popular device, half of our research findings surrounded the iPhone. Malware for this device took a different approach with the release of IOS 4. The multitasking that users take part in on their systems easily goes unnoticed, allowing the presence of malware to be easier to miss and less intrusive. Malware is more commonly found on iPhones that have been jail broken.

"Jail breaking" means freeing a phone from the limitations imposed by the wireless provider and in this case, Apple. Users install a software application on their computer, and then transfer it to their iPhone, where it "breaks open" the iPhone's file system, allowing you to modify it; however, this also opens it up to malware. By jail breaking a phone, users are possibly allowing malicious applications into their device which has access to their personal information including their bank account. These applications are not subjected to the same limitations as Apple and therefore are easier to get from a rogue reference and infect cell phone.

Additionally, by not changing the password on a jail broken iPhone, the SSH service, is easy for malicious attackers to create worms used to infect the users operating device. An example of how important this threat is to note was highlighted by Ike, a worm created to raise security awareness when it comes to using these jail broken devices. It illustrates how once the core app has run its route, the vulnerability can gain complete control of the system.

Apple is slow to pinpoint vulnerabilities, including the SMS (texting) exploit released in the summer of 2010 by Charlie Miller. This also revealed that Apple is so slow to release that third party organizations were able to produce a security patch before Apple.

[Check out these 5 questions to ask before creating mobile device security policy ]

Windows Mobile

When it comes to threats, Windows Mobile takes the cake when it comes to attracting malware via SMS. Specifically the amount of SMS malware found on Windows Mobile devices is much higher in comparison to others. An interesting facet of the Windows Mobile OS is that many of the system calls are shared with it's full-featured desktop counterparts. This detail has contributed to many pieces of malware that have originated on the Windows OS being ported to the Windows Mobile OS. A noteworthy example of this is the Zeus botnet that in recent years has begun to appear on mobile versions of Windows.

BlackBerry

A popular alternative to the previous two mobile operating systems, the BlackBerry is also quite different from the typical smart phone. The BlackBerry uses what is arguably the most closed source of the operating systems discussed herein. Research In Motion, the developers of BlackBerry have done an excellent job of keeping the sensitive inner workings of this smart phone a secret from the public. This is a contributing factor for the relatively small number of reliable exploits for the BlackBerry smart phone.

BlackBerry also suffers from the multitasking concerns that make it easier for malware to run unnoticed. An interesting proof of concept developed for the BlackBerry is the BBProxy application that was presented at DEFCON.

Symbian

There is not a lot of information regarding malware for this operating device, although it is the oldest of the smart phones and one of the most popular outside of America. Windows, Blackberry and Symbian are malware populated and not present on Android or iPhone. Along with the Windows Mobile family of Phones, Zeus has be ported the Symbian as well. The mobile version of Zeus is being used to intercept text messages sent as the second factor of authentication in many services.

Android

The Android operating system is the only open source operating system discussed herein. Android is unique in that it is community driven. The Android operating system is not owned by an individual organization, so it is developed in the best interest of the users. However, the applications are not monitored for vulnerabilities in the marketplace, so anyone can submit applications containing malicious functions which are less likely to be caught. Essentially, it is up to the users to determine if it is a safe and reputable source from which they are getting the app.

Amazon now has a 3rd party market place, which imposes additional policies and restrictions on applications that are distributed.

Android is based on the Linux operating system. On Linux, availability on Android is unlike others and there is not much evidence of ported malware. This is not because there is not any known Linux malware out there, but because it doesn't receive much attention.

In Conclusion

All operating systems have distinct strengths and weaknesses; however, many are the same and essentially are up to the user and the configuration of the password. Users need to remember not to install apps from unnecessary sources, especially if they are unknown. While users can't know them all, users need to ensure that they are from a reputable source. If not, that is where malware commonly comes from, with backdoor apps masquerading as secure applications. Also, jail broken phones are at a huge risk if the user maintains the default password and an even higher risk if not used in the Apple marketplace. Instances of malware exist on all of the phones and are even more relevant on ones using untrusted app sources. Consumers can keep this research in mind when using their smartphone to best protect their valuable information.

Spencer McIntyre is a security consultant at SecureState where he focuses on penetration testing and tool development.


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