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Five ways to protect your smartphone

Bill Snyder, CIO | June 2, 2011
With malware popping up on the Android Market, CIO looks at smartphone security and comes up with some tips for keeping your phone safe from would-be threats.

 

How to be safe

I spoke with Adam Wosotowsky, a McAfee Labs researcher who worked on the report, and he made a number of suggestions that mobile users should keep in mind.

 

Don’t jailbreak your iPhone: Apple’s tight control over the iPhone and the apps on its store is a strength of the platform. However, owning a device that someone else has so much control over annoys some users who then “jailbreak” their iPhones. Be warned. Jailbreaking—using a software download that changes and opens the operating system—leaves your phone vulnerable to numerous hacks that would otherwise be repelled by the locked phone.

Bank with authorized apps only: Online banking and bill pay is a great convenience, and being able to do it with a mobile device could be even more convenient. But if you opt to do so, only use apps supplied by your bank, cautions Wosotowsky. Otherwise you could go to the ATM and find that you’ve got zero money in your account.

Only download popular apps: I know this sounds pretty stodgy. But there’s a reason for it. Apps that have been downloaded a lot aren’t likely to be poisoned. For that matter, they’re likely to be worth downloading—if you believe in the wisdom of crowds, that is. Wostowsky says the threshold of safety is about 150,000 downloads. Apps on the iTunes App Store have been vetted by Apple, but even those folks can miss a threat, so it’s good advice for users of any platform. And of course, read the comments.

Download from reputable publishers: If you’re uncertain about an app, do a quick search under the publisher’s name. If you find a number of apps with good reviews and lots of downloads, chances are you’re dealing with an OK outfit.

Keep an eye on your wireless bill: Some rogue apps do things like make expensive calls to foreign numbers to fatten the bank account of various intermediary sites at your expense. Often the calls happen in the background or at times when you don’t realize your phone is doing something. Even if you haven’t been infected, you may have unwittingly subscribed to one of those annoying services that automatically bill you every month for things like ring tones, so check the bill every month; it only takes a few minutes.

Those are solid tips. But shouldn’t the app stores do a better job looking out for their customers? They should, agrees Wostowsky. App stores should do more automated scans of apps to find malware before it can be downloaded. Be sure that raters of apps are real people, not bots, and narrow the access to system functions that many apps now require, or ask for.

 

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