As the holiday season approaches, smartphones and tablets are some of the most in-demand items for anyone with even a hint of gadget love in their DNA. Coverage of these exciting new tools is full of hype about new features (SIRI) and also new fears (Carrier IQ). With the sheer volume of marketing and fear being thrown around--eclipsing even the number of holiday songs on the radio--it can be hard for even well-informed users to discern meaning from marketing when it comes to security on mobile devices.
It's a bit like gifting a car: The right choice can greatly improve the recipient's life, while a bad choice could leave them with problems for years to come. This guide is to help you with the security side of the decision, to enable you to take it into account and make the right choices for that special someone (or special self!)
Neohapsis Labs (an independent security think tank based in Chicago) has looked into the general security issues and distilled them down to this short guide (a more detailed report will be released early next year). While there are many available choices of device, the main security decision is what platform to get. There are some main contenders at present (iOS, Android, Blackberry) and a few aspiring players (e.g. Windows Phone, Meego, WebOS, Bada). We are not covering Symbian due to Nokia's recent decision to move to windows phone 7 in 2012. We will focus on the differences between the platforms and not go into any cross-platform issues such as widespread use of mobile analytics packages to track users for advertising purposes.
Google's Android operating system is the most widely deployed platform on tablets and smartphones at present, with a large number of vendors providing their own customized versions. Integrating smoothly with many Google services, Android is rapidly evolving with the latest version (the very well reviewed Ice Cream Sandwich) offering a slew of new features.
Unfortunately, when it comes to security, Android still has a long way to go. The large delay in releasing fixes for security issues is problematic as it requires a different release for each carrier, manufacturer and model. As a result, many Android devices are stuck using old and insecure versions of the operating system.
When it comes to applications, the primary source of applications is the Android Market, which contains tens of thousands of applications, most of them free. These applications are uploaded by developers and go through no review before being published, allowing fast turnaround, but leaving the door open for malicious apps to linger until Google hits the remote kill switch to remove them from devices (as has happened numerous times). Alternatively, curated markets such as the Amazon Appstore show promise for preventing malicious apps getting in--however they also have drawn complaints for the slow rollout of application updates.
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