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Going Mobile: The Disconnect Between Convenience and Security

By Claudiu Popa |

The task of selecting a mobile phone used to be a simple one. A limited selection and budget all but identified the handset that would fit your needs. The carriers and individual store locations narrowed the choices even further potentially contributing to a sense of having arrived at the perfect communication tool.

Today, that task is now a challenge, with hundreds of regular and smartphone models that can be re-skinned, re-activated and re-jigged to meet anyone’s taste for aesthetic design and usability. It’s no longer about functionality but about style. And concerns over reliability and security have given way to the pursuit of convergence.

Leaving aside the quantum leaps in portability, today’s simplest mobile phones have more computing power than the Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC) that put people on the moon, and that power is used to run integrated cameras, microphones, networking for Internet access, multimedia players, contact managers, file and data storage among other ‘convenience’ features.

They have operating systems, voice recognition capabilities, touch screens, advanced video and yes, security functions. Upon closer examination, even the most secure of these phones seems to offer a very limited selection of protective features compared to the rich array of themes, styles and personalization options. The mobile handset has become a superficial extension of us, with virtual access to social networks and literal contributions to our cosmetic image.

Once viewed through such a lens, it is easy to overlook the sharp imbalance between function and protection.

Giant enterprises are individually involved in a unified global struggle to match the current desires of a fickle marketplace while taking calculated risks in anticipating consumer demand.  The short life span of individual products means that the focus of innovation is placed on attractive features that marketing departments can sink their teeth into and sell, not on obscure security features that require intense attention and user education, both obstacles to rapid sales growth. Features are where it’s at, and the convergence of those features vastly increases the appeal of every new product, along with security and privacy exposures.

To wit, the latest Norton Cybercrime Report pegs the increase in mobile phone vulnerabilities at 42% for the year due to a combination of factors: unpatched vulnerabilities, available mobile phone apps, user apathy, lack of security features and the weakness of 3rd party protection. In fact, only 16% have adequate security on their smartphones, making the other 84% responsible for not only exposing their own information but spreading malware across their own individual platforms.

But is it really any wonder that phones have become the focus of criminals and ne’er-do-wells when they’re not just the sum of their features but the product of individual innovations — storage devices, recording devices, entertainment systems, document management systems, etcetera — each with well-known security concerns?

Keeping the following list in mind may help even the least computer-savvy user begin to wonder about the powerful tool they rely on for everything from shopping lists to watching TV. This table is simply a list of computer features whose security issues are known as points of vulnerability.




Operating System

Rich functional platform where undetectable malware can burrow and nest.

Only verified software can be installed.

Large storage capacity

The more data we store, the more we can lose.

All sensitive data must be adequately encrypted.

Transactional capability

Anyone with access to the phone can use it to pay for things.

The phone must uniquely identify the authorized owner.


Pictures and videos can be used for embarrassment and blackmail.

Stored audio, image and video data should be encrypted without an impact on performance and battery life.

Contact management and business tools

Financial and contact details may include information that isn’t even ours to lose.

Access control and encryption controls in the software should integrate with the phone’s security features so they’re less likely to be disabled by malware.

Multimedia communications features

Hijacking and eavesdropping are now a common occurrence due to the proliferation of mobile spyware.

Data integrity verification is a feature that validates the authenticity of software installed on a device. Anti-malware may also help, but it can only detect what it recognizes.

Internet and Web access

Malware infections can cause all sorts of problems, from simply monitoring mobile phone usage to taking control over a compromised device.

Avoid hacking the phone. Instead, become familiarized with all its security features and be aware of changes in the phone’s behaviour and responsiveness.

When we consider that all these features come together to deliver what we consider to be adequate functionality in a smartphone, we begin to realize that for each of these potential exposures, we need to have a corresponding protective safeguard. Armed with such a checklist, an informed consumer stands a better chance of purchasing a device that can balance the need for managing information to that of protecting it.

On a positive note, the irrational obsession we have with celebrity lifestyles has for once served to increase awareness of the privacy impact of mismanaging these overpowered communication devices. With every incremental report of an embarrassed starlet or troubled socialite’s exposed pictures and personal information we get one step closer to a reality where consumers young and old will focus less on how many custom apps their phones can juggle and more on how well those devices can protect their personal life.

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