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Superphones: A security nightmare waiting to happen

Smartphones don't tell the half of it

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If I sit down with a PC from the late 90s and a modern PC I bought yesterday they are quite obviously the same animal. The operating system has changed, and there have been some minor innovations. With the exception of speed and support for the newest protocols, a PC from the late 90s could be used to perform exactly the same tasks we would buy PC for today.

Perhaps most importantly, the security considerations of the late 90s are largely applicable to computers today. Yes, Vundo, Conficker, Stuxnet et al. are new friends here to keep security folks employed.

Drive-by-downloads and browser vulnerabilities have risen while operating system flaws have fallen. Still, the same basic rules apply: keep your firewall up and your operating system and applications fully patched. If you are using Windows then anti-malware software is an absolute necessity, as are good (non-image) backups. You’ll likely be reinstalling your PC at least once a year.

In more than a decade, nothing in the PC landscape has really changed. Smartphones are a different story. So, what exactly is a smartphone? Wikipedia offers up a potential definition: “a mobile phone that offers more advanced computing ability and connectivity than a contemporary feature phone.” The limiting factor of a feature phone seems to be that applications are limited to the anemic Java ME.

By Wikipedia’s definition, it’s been well over a decade since the first devices crept out. The problem I have with this is that modern smartphones bear absolutely no resemblance whatsoever to their antecedents. You might as well be attempting to compare a modern Windows 7 gaming rig with ENIAC.

Using Wikipedia’s definition for smartphone covers a pretty broad range. The various generations of smartphone differ greatly in functionality, media capability and attack surfaces. Smartphone has become a nearly useless term for consumers and for systems administrators as well.

The term I run across most often for post-iPhone smartphones is “superphone.” Wikipedia disagrees – searching for “superphone” returns nothing – but I lack a better term. By my definition, a superphone is a generational increment above the traditional smartphone. It is notable by the inclusion of an integrated App Store, Wi-Fi and multimedia playback capabilities.

Whatever happened to security through obscurity?

Media playback capabilities make these devices desirable to more than IT types and busy executives with the time to learn a device’s quirks. The ability to play media also means owners of smartphones have the incentive to spend time learning how to move files on and off the handheld.

Add in the ability to install an app for anything via an integrated app store and then browse your corporate Wi-Fi and we are now playing a completely different game.

The modern superphone - a category that includes post-iPad tablets - bears only an incidental link to its precursor, the smartphone. Smaller organisations can generally get away with ignoring the threat of a smartphone. Indeed, if you are using BES (BlackBerry Enterprise Server) or similar solutions to manage your smartphones, then they likely pose no real threat to you at all.

Superphones on the other hand are deadly. They are not only fully-featured computers in their own right, they are easy – and desirable – enough to use that everyday users are getting in on it. They are everywhere and worst of all, their popularity is seeing their vulnerabilities discovered, exploited and malware specifically designed to target them. That’s before we even consider the privacy implications.

I call then for a differentiation between “smartphones” and “superphones”. One is a hand-held email appliance that can browse the web (poorly.) The other is security nightmare looking for a place to happen. ®

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