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Kenneth Van Wyk: What users can do to make their smartphones more secure

It's really not all that difficult to do a little self-vetting of the apps you install on your mobile devices

By Kenneth van Wyk
June 4, 2012 09:14 AM ET

Computerworld - The sky is falling! The sky is falling!

A lot of Chicken Littles are running around warning about the end of the world, brought about by the insecurity of mobile devices. There's a kernel of truth there, and I myself have bemoaned the state of mobile security. But there's also a good deal of exaggeration, born of (often vendor-fanned) fear, uncertainty and doubt. So, what's a user to do? Let's explore that a bit.

Broadly speaking, you have three choices: Avoid mobile devices altogether, carefully select the apps you install and use, or dive right in and hope for the best.

The one sure bet is to avoid smartphones and other modern mobile devices, but that doesn't sound like a lot of fun to me. There are a lot of really useful and ingenious apps out there, so you'd be robbing yourself of some great opportunities. Nonetheless, using a dumb phone may well be a reasonable course of action for some people. If all you seek from your mobile phone is the ability to send and receive voice calls, and perhaps an occasional text message, then you should find no shortage of free, carrier-subsidized dumb phones. You would indeed have fewer security worries, and more money in your pocket.

I just don't think that option is going to appeal to a lot of people. At the other extreme, diving in without regard for safety seems reckless. If you are hell-bent on maximizing the convenience of your smartphone, you'll be tempted by apps that help you manage your money, make payments, receive payments, transfer funds -- the list just keeps going. But what sort of person does that without thinking about the danger of exposing sensitive information on a device that is easy to steal or lose?

Personally, I've taken a middle road. I do have a smartphone, but I'm careful about the apps I install. What does it mean to be careful? Since I'm in the security field myself, it means that I vet the apps myself. But a lot of what I do can be done by just about anyone who knows a little bit about applications. Here are a couple of things you can try.

Static analysis. Maybe you didn't realize it, but you can poke around an app's sandbox and take a look at what's in there for yourself. All you need are your mobile device, a USB cable and free software such as iExplorer that lets you look at the files in each app on your device. (Note: These examples are primarily for Apple's iOS, but similar tools and methods can be used on Android as well.)



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