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Beyond The NSA: 4 Ways To Combat Mobile Security Threats

June 19, 2013
Managing Money
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Last week we learned the National Security Agency (NSA) is mining users’ online data through the system PRISM as well as seizing the mobile phone records of millions of mobile service customers. The motivations behind recent NSA actions are still not fully disclosed, but national anxiety is growing over this invasion into personal privacy.

Combined with fears of massive hacking campaigns working from Iran and China, Americans increasingly call into question the security of their mobile devices.

Cue the unveiling of Apple’s iOS 7, replete with new controls that block calls, text messages, and force apps to request permission for deeper access into your personal data. But despite these new features, over 100 million Americans with smartphones consistently and unknowingly make their personal information available to hackers. Here are four tips for keeping your information safe and secure against the most common mobile security offenses:

Safety Comparison

Android 4.2X iPhone iOS 6 iPhone iOS 7
Apps must request permission to access:
  •  Camera functions*
  •  Location (GPS)
  •  Bluetooth
  •  Microphone and transmitting sound
  •  SMS/MMS functions
  •  Network/data connections

*Camera, not stored photos

**You can either accept or reject all permissions for an app.

  • Photos
  • Location (GPS)
  • Bluetooth
  • Contacts
  • Calendars
  • Reminders
  • Twitter and Facebook

*You can customize permissions for each app.

Same at iOS 6 Plus Microphone
Tracking when lost or stolen Where’s My Droid app can remotely wipe device of data, find GPS location of phone and lock it among other features. Find My Phone app can remotely wipe data, give driving directions to phone, and lock the device among other features. Same as iOS 6
Malware protection
  • Avast!
  • Lookout
  • Kersky
  • Norton Mobile
  • EST
  • Avast!
  • Lookout


Same as iOS 6

1. Password protect your phone

According to Consumer Reports, over 7.1 million smartphones are “damaged, or lost, or stolen and never recovered.” That means granting thieves access to your family photos, email, Facebook, Twitter and mobile banking accounts. Although it may seem tedious to always lock and unlock your phone, it will potentially save you even more time (and money) in the case your phone is stolen and accounts hacked—the longer and more complex your password or pattern, the better.

What can you do once your phone is stolen? Android and iPhone both have a Find My Phone feature intended to help locate lost or stolen phones. iCloud can help you wipe the personal data from your phone if you’ve consistently backed it up. But they only work if the phone is powered on and connected to WiFi.

A great option worth considering is applications like Lookout, which can help you locate your phone down to the block before it dies, wipe your information (including Google accounts) remotely, and even force it to sound an alarm. AndroidLost also offers similar features.

2. Don’t download software from third party websites

Android has eclipsed all other mobile devices as the number one smartphone targeted by hackers. When Lookout researched the issue, they found that malware enabled hackers to steal one million dollars from Android users. Why are Androids particularly at risk? The Google Play Marketplace is incredibly more open: new developers can upload their apps to Google Marketplace and often those with strands of malicious code can go unnoticed before infecting devices. iPhones are less at risk due to how meticulous the Apple Store remains in vetting and controlling the apps it features.

Once downloaded, malware can gain access to your calls, texts, data, and geographic location then transmit that information to a computer. How can you avoid these apps? Don’t download software or applications from websites other than the Google Play Marketplace, Amazon App Stoere, or the Apple Store. And even when relying on platforms like these, thoroughly research the app you’re downloading, verify it’s the original version and grant it access with strict discretion.

Be wary if you notice texts, calls, or apps that you didn’t send or download—you may have been hacked.

3. Only use restricted WiFi networks

Never gain Internet access through a Wifi network that isn’t password protected. Say you want to download the news faster on your commute to work, but do you trust everyone that’s sharing the open network with you on that subway train? Synching to these networks give others unrestricted access to information to your phone from accessing your email to buying music with your iTunes password. If it’s not protected and shared with people you trust, then it’s best to rely on 3 or 4G to gain Internet access.

4. Be wary of malicious ads

The mobile app industry relies heavily on ad sales. That means you might unknowingly share all of your contacts or your location with a third-party advertiser when you grant apps access to that information. While the apps themselves may be harmless, the advertisements could embed malicious code or extract very personal information from you.

This year, Google Marketplace withdrew 32 apps that possessed the malware BadNews, suspected to have affected millions of devices. BadNews gained access by pretending to be an Ad network that advertised through select apps. Lookout has put together a free app for Androids that lets you see which companies advertise through popular apps. That’s right, an app for apps.

As smartphones increasingly allow us to do things more efficiently, they expose more risk. Yet, with awareness of these risks and how to mitigate them, forge on, mobile user, and safely employ the fruits of technology.