Smartphones becoming prime target for criminal hackers

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Smartphones becoming prime target for criminal hackers

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Smartphones becoming prime target for criminal hackers

As mobile devices become more popular, hackers take a greater interest

By Andre Mayer, CBC News, March 06, 2014

In the last couple of years, “we have seen a huge influx” in the number of
hackers targeting smartphones, says a security expert with Kaspersky Labs.

Cybersecurity analysts say nefarious forces are increasingly turning their
attention to the most personal computer you own, the one you carry
everywhere and trust with some of your most sensitive secrets – your

“Over the last two years or so, we have seen a huge influx” in the number of
hackers targeting smartphones, says Roel Schouwenberg, principal security
researcher for Kaspersky Labs, a well-known anti-virus firm.

Because these devices carry so much of our personal and financial
information nowadays – to the point where many of us treat them like digital
wallets –
hackers are finding ways to gain unauthorized access to them.

Most phones have little in the way of security and anti-malware protection.
Given the right opportunity, malware creators can breach our email and
lists, monitor highly personal communications and capture vital data such as
the password we type into our mobile banking app.

Tony Anscombe, senior security evangelist for anti-virus provider AVG
Technologies, says that one of the most vulnerable aspects is text messaging

also known as SMS, or short message service.

A hacker will send you an unsolicited text under a seemingly legitimate
pretense – like a notice from your bank – that may contain a link that if
clicked, could download a virus onto your phone.

“We’re conditioned, as grown-ups on the internet, to look at our [email]
inbox and weed out spam,” says Anscombe. “Are we conditioned in the same way
to look
at our SMS as we get text messages?”

It’s a rhetorical question – Anscombe says that for the most part, consumers
are unaware that we are living in an age of increasing cyber-aggression.

Cyber threat getting ‘exponentially worse’

The threat to computing devices overall is getting “exponentially worse,”
says Sean Forkan, vice-president and general manager for web security
Symantec Canada.

Forkan says that between 1991 – the year of the Michelangelo computer virus,
and 2011, Symantec identified about 200 million different virus definitions.
comparison, the company found upwards of 200 million in 2012 alone.

“So in a single year, we saw more unique variants of viruses out there than
all the [previous] years combined,” Forkan says. “And we expect that to
this year.”

Forkan’s company is in the business of selling anti-virus software, but he’s
not the only one sounding the alarm.
Mikko Hypponen, the renowned security expert and columnist, has been warning
of this trend since at least 2006, when he published an article in
Scientific American called “Malware Goes Mobile.”

The “vast majority of mobile malware” is being written for Android phones,
say cybersecurity researchers. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

While desktop and laptop computers remain the greatest targets for malware
creators, Anscombe says hackers have recently set their sights on
smartphones –
especially ones running the Android operating system.

He says that to ensure the greatest success, hackers zero in on the most
ubiquitous platforms. According to reports by both IDC and Strategy
Android phones – such as those manufactured by Samsung, LG and HDC – had an
81 per cent market share in the third quarter of 2013.

“If you look at the rise of any platform or OS, once you get over a certain
percentage of adoption, you start to see it become interesting to
cybercriminals,” says Anscombe.

Android phones a favoured target

One of the great selling features of smartphones is the staggering array of
apps available for download. But these seemingly innocuous programs can also
provide hackers with a pathway into your phone, says Schoewenberg.

Not only does Android have the biggest market share, but it is also seen as
easier to hack, he says.

Android apps are not as tightly regulated and can be installed from both the
approved Google Play store and the wider internet. Hackers may find ways to
introduce malicious code into apps found outside the Google Play store.

“What we see right now is an absolutely vast majority of mobile malware is
being written for Android,” says Schouwenberg, adding that it’s “pretty
close to 100
per cent” of the mobile malware circulating online.

He says Apple’s iOS is more “locked down,” but recent events show that it’s
not impenetrable.

On Feb. 21, Apple revealed that it had discovered a security flaw in both
its mobile and desktop operating systems that gave hackers the ability to
personal and financial information users were typing into their web
(The flaw has since been patched.)

Apple’s reputation for software security a ‘myth,’ says expert

Anscombe says one hacking technique is taking a popular app such as Candy
Crush Saga, inserting a string of malicious commands into its code and then
it on a third-party app site that doesn’t have the same stringent
application process as Google Play or the Apple store.

“Somebody young, like a teenager, is going to say, ‘Oh, I have to pay for it
in the Google Play store; I’ll just download it from this third-party
store,” says
Anscombe. “What he’s not realizing is that it’s being wrapped in some sort
of malware, and once installed, that malware kicks in and starts doing some

Hackers aren’t the only ones interested in widely used apps. Documents
leaked by
National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden show that both the NSA
and its British counterpart, GCHQ, have exploited vulnerabilities in the
code of
apps such as Angry Birds in order to access smartphones.

NSA uses smartphone apps to track people, Snowden docs suggest

Lack of awareness

A major problem has been a lack of consumer awareness about the fact that
smartphones can be targeted, says Anscombe. Part of that, he says, is a
misunderstanding of what constitutes malware nowadays.

“A lot of people out there still think malware is the Pac-Man running across
the screen, [or] the Blue Screen of Death,” says Anscombe.

He says that most people don’t understand that malware is largely invisible,
and that you may have inadvertently downloaded it when you visited an
infected web
site or accessed a malicious file.

An additional concern, Anscombe says, is that most retailers do little to
promote anti-virus software for smartphones.

“The education about the disruptive nature of malware on a desktop and
laptop just hasn’t been there in the mobile industry,” says Anscombe. “But
that doesn’t
mean the malware’s not there.”

Cybersecurity analysts say the biggest hurdle in making handset devices
safer is convincing people that they need to consider more than just

“There’s a whole lot less privacy in the mobile space with your smartphone
than there is on your laptop,” Schoewenberg says, “and it is going to be
to see if consumers accept that reality.”

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