Snooping on computers has been a problem for decades. The so-called Trojan Horse , malware that gives a hacker access to a PC without the owner’s permission, has been around since the 80’s. Keyloggers are another area of concern, and have been given some attention in the popular media from time to time. But whatever you call it, snooping on a PC is an accepted risk, and one users often look out for.
But what about your smartphone? Modern devices are essentially tiny PCs that also make phone calls, and the potential negative effects of Smartphone snooping could be much worse. Smartphones transmit location data and store lists of everyone you know, along with their phone numbers. Obviously, this information shouldn’t be in the wrong hands, but what can you do to prevent Smartphone snooping?
Monitor Permissions Carefully (Android)
If you’re using an Android smartphone you’ll be presented with a list of permissions every time you install a new app (iPhone users can move on to the next section). The permissions lists, in detail, the functions the app is looking to access on your phone. They range from fairly innocuous things such as SD card read/write access to more ominous features like the ability to read and edit your contacts.
I’d like to have a fast-and-easy rule for permissions, but there isn’t one. My best advice is to make sure the permissions make sense for the app. An app that enhances your contacts will obviously need access to contact data. That makes sense. But it might not make sense for the app to have access to your precise GPS location , unless there is some feature that requires it. If you’re hesitant, but you really want the app, try checking out the developer’s website or contacting the developer directly. Many will provide you with the reasons why their app needs various permissions.
Don’t assume that an app is on the level just because it is popular. Pandora, for example, was recently accused of acquiring data about users (including location, birthday and sex) via its app and then sending that data to ad servers.
Use A Data Monitor
One of the most obvious indications that something may be seriously wrong with your smartphone’s security is a sudden increase in data usage. Theoretically, malware and other Smartphone snooping software can do all sorts of things with your device without your knowledge. One recent proof of concept suggests that smartphone botnets could be just around the corner.
A data monitor can help you keep tabs on your data usage. There are too many such apps to do an in-depth review of them here. Personally, I like the RadioOpt Traffic Monitor for Android, but your mileage may vary.
It’s also wise to occasionally check your data usage through your carrier. Although a traffic monitor should discover any problems, it always possible that a threat could find a way to disguise itself. You should also consider an SMS text message monitor, if one is available for your mobile OS.
Install A Remote Phone Tracker & Data Nuker
As I’ve mentioned when discussing laptop security, physical theft of a mobile device can be a real security issue. Smartphones are even worse, because they’re easy to lose track of, and most users don’t even protect their device with a passphrase. It would be trivial for someone to access data on a phone once they have the physical phone.
However, smartphones do have an advantage over laptops. Virtually all of them have GPS, which means that it is easy to obtain the precise location of the device if it goes missing but remains turned on. In addition, smartphones have data connections that are always on unless specifically turned off, which means it is easy to send a remote wipe command.
There are multiple Android apps that offer this functionality – we recently looked at one example, called Mobile Defense . Apple’s iPhone offers similar functionality through the Find My iPhone feature.
Consider An Antivirus App
The antivirus field for mobile devices is still immature. Apple doesn’t even allow antivirus software on the iPhone, while Android’s antivirus market is saturated with lots of apps, many of which have frankly questionable credentials.
Even so, a quality antivirus app could have some use. At the very least, it should be able to point out phone settings that could compromise your security, and many antivirus apps bundle phone trackers as well. Antivirus should also be very effective, at least theoretically, because the app market used on mobile devices serves as a gateway to software. This makes it harder for malware to reintroduce itself into the app ecosystem once it is discovered.
The problem is that no one seems to know how to test these mobile antivirus apps yet. There’s no definitive, objective source providing data on mobile antivirus effectiveness. Also, mobile devices – Android in particular – are ripe for fakeware attacks. Fakeware is a so-called antivirus program that actually is spyware or malware, but fools users by providing fake reports claiming the app has found and addressed security threats. I suggest doing a lot of research on any antivirus app before installing it.
Smartphone security is a topic that has just recently become an issue. As smartphones become more powerful and popular the malware targeting them will certainly increase. That’s just the way of security – if something is worth stealing, someone will probably try to steal it.
Don’t take this as scaremongering, however. The steps above will help protect you, and with vigilance, you should be able to side-step any problems.