With the addition of internet connectivity, Bluetooth, more ports, GPS, and countless apps, smartphones are a privacy and security nightmare. But you won’t necessarily improve your situation by switching to a dumb phone.
Here are five areas where smartphones have the upper hand when it comes to security.
1. Smartphones Support Encrypted Communication
SMS is a communication standard commonplace all over the world. That doesn’t mean it’s private.
Smartphones let you install methods of communication designed to safeguard your privacy. Consider encrypted messaging apps, which make your conversations more difficult to intercept. The benefits aren’t limited to text-based conversations. You can send encrypted voice calls or video chat as well.
While there are numerous options out there, Signal is a great place to start. The app is free and open source, so people are able to confirm whether the developer is actually snooping on your conversations. Plus it comes from an organization whose primary focus is safeguarding your privacy, unlike alternatives from Facebook or Google.
The app’s funding comes from grants and donations rather than ads and tracking.
2. Smartphones Are More Likely to Receive Updates
People look forward to system updates for the new features they sometimes bring. A new version of Android or iOS can make your handset feel like a brand new device.
Yet most updates don’t come with such drastic changes. Most come with security patches that fix flaws in your phone’s code that someone has learned how to exploit. In the process, these firmware updates overwrite older firmware.
That means if your older firmware has been compromised, a firmware update can erase the problem, even though the patches provided were meant to address something else.
Many dumb phones often never see a software update, so compromised firmware will remain infected. That said, the same is true for millions of budget Android phones floating in the wild. There’s a reason Android phones are not known for speedy updates.
3. Smartphone OSes Have More Security Features
Thirty years ago, most phones were heavy devices tethered to walls. When phones became cordless, they still had to stay within range of a base station in order to function. Initial development on cell phones focused on getting the technology simply to work.
Early cell phones functioned more like appliances. They had a single role to play: make calls. Yet, long before phones became “smart,” developers added the ability to send texts, play basic games, download ringtones, and load web pages. Each addition introduced a new possible way to compromise a phone’s security.
While companies by and large still fail to fully prioritize cybersecurity, the developers working on Android and iOS have to take the matter into account. More protective measures are baked into the OS, such as isolating various processes from one another (a permissions model that limits what users and files can access) and sandboxing that prevents apps from touching other parts of your phone.
So if you’re using an up-to-date version of a newer phone, there’s quite a bit of safety built in. Just make sure you’re practicing smart security habits either way.
4. You Can See If a Smartphone Is Compromised
Smartphones are small computers that fit in our pockets. So are dumb phones. But while you can replicate much of what you use a laptop for on a smartphone, dumb phones don’t exactly feel like PCs.
Flip phones largely hide most indications that they are mobile computing devices. You can’t open a terminal, for example. This reduces the ability to detect that your phone has been compromised. Unless your device starts crashing, produces weird feedback, or has a notable drop in quality, you could use a phone that’s been infected by malware with no idea.
On a smartphone, you have access to the tools that check whether unwanted software has made its way onto your device. You can see if there are files where there shouldn’t be or detect if a system component has been modified.
Even if you don’t check or notice these things yourself, the ease with which anyone can check means it’s more likely someone somewhere will have noticed vulnerabilities and shared the news.
5. There’s Separation Between Physical Components
Smartphones are physically more complex, meaning they have more internal components. This can work to your advantage.
Take the baseband processor. Smartphones typically have baseband radio processors, which manage your connection to a mobile network that are separate from the main CPU. The two units communicate through a single bus, the communication system that transfers data between computer components.
The code that runs baseband processors is proprietary, and researchers have found exploits on some chips. That makes this separation a potential benefit. If an attacker manages to infect your baseband processor, that doesn’t mean they have access to the main processor housing most of your data.
— dragosr (@dragosr) November 12, 2015
This is a double-edged sword. More components mean more places where someone could sneak in illicit code. But it takes a certain degree of technical know-how to work your way around these components. That won’t stop the most determined or knowledgeable attackers, but it can weed out some of the others.
This Doesn’t Mean Your Smartphone Is Secure
Phone manufacturers, app developers, tech journalists, and consumers all emphasize features over security. Features sell phones. They make us download apps. They’re the reason we swapped dumb phones for smartphones in the first place.
But these features are also what make smartphones such insecure devices. More code means more possible ways to get around the built-in security features. Encrypted messaging apps are great, but if you’ve downloaded malware that sends screenshots to someone else’s computer, your communicate isn’t private.
And we’ve frankly hit a point where even the legitimate apps track us far more than we’d like.
Switching to a dumb phone can improve your privacy and security by eliminating apps and most forms of tracking. But if you opt to use your smartphone like a dumb phone, you can get the best of both worlds. Alternatively, you can keep your eyes out for smartphones whose security features are their main highlight, such as Purism’s Librem 5.