Smartphone security threats overdramatized, experts say

I was sitting in the middle of one of the most security conscious crowds you'd ever come across -- about 200 computer security professionals listening to a high-powered panel on mobile security threats at the RSA Conference in San Francisco last week.

And you'd think that after nearly 90 minutes of discussion, I'd leave the room all a twitter (pardon the pun) and scared that my iPhone was about to go rogue. Not at all. In fact, I left feeling a lot more relaxed about the security of my smartphone, and a little more skeptical about the barrage of hacker warnings to which we've all been subjected.

"I can count on one hand the pieces of (mobile) malware I've seen installed," said Ian Robertson, manger of security research for Research in Motion, the developers of the ubiquitous Blackberry.

Richardson wasn't the panel's maverick. All four agreed that mobile threats are potentially serious, but are still rarely seen in the real world. Indeed, one of the panelists asked the audience how many people had seen a mobile attack or been victimized themselves -- and there was almost no response from a roomful of security experts.

"Day-to-day mobile threats haven't (yet) caused much harm," said panelist Ed Amoroso, the chief security officer of AT&T.

BlackBerry Nightmare Scenario Still Fiction

At an earlier panel devoted to Blackberry security, Adam Meyers, director of cyber security for SRA International, warned about insecure mobile devices, but then poured a bit of cooling water on the "FUD" (fear, uncertainty and doubt) surrounding the popular business device. The truth, he said, is that remote exploitation of the Blackberry is theoretically possible, but he has yet to see a real world version of the "nightmare scenario" in which a hacker compromises a Blackberry and uses that as a way into the network.

I want to be careful not to give the impression that there is no security threat to you as a user of wireless. There is. The panelists I heard all predicted that threats and exploits will emerge over the next few years. But the takeaway from my visit to RSA is this: be careful, but it's not nearly as dangerous out there as you might think. Not yet.

Why so much hype about the threats? No doubt about it; the wired world of the desktop has indeed been barraged with malware of various sorts, so we've been primed to suspect digital security and privacy breaches. Meanwhile, the use of wireless devices is increasing exponentially, and more and more sensitive data is being stored and transmitted on those devices. So it makes sense to believe that hackers, many of whom are now part of profit-making criminal enterprises, will begin to focus on mobile users, said Richardson.

Those are good reasons to be somewhat concerned. But there are other drivers of security hysteria that aren't so good. Security companies make their living selling software or services or both, designed to make someone's network or devices more secure. I'm not accusing anyone of acting unethical, but why wouldn't they (especially the marketing and pr guys, as opposed to the engineers) succumb to the temptation to amp up the perceived threat level a bit? The security companies I pay attention to are certainly reputable, but there is an awful lot of hype out there.

That hype wouldn't mean nearly as much if the tech media were a bit more skeptical. Instead, many of us act as megaphones. It's not surprising that journalists would rather write a scary story about looming threats than a more nuanced piece that says things aren't so bad. After all, eyeballs are the coin of the realm these days, and everyone who publishes wants to be noticed. Scary and dramatic equals page views.

Three Reasons Mobile Malware is Rare

So, why isn't the mobile threat nearly as pervasive as we've been led to think? For that answer I turned to Michael Sutton, vice president of research at Zscalar, a security company whose engineers have always provided me with level-headed guidance on threats. Here's what he said via an e-mail:

1. PCs have been dominated by a single, operating system, with Windows controlling 90 percent plus of desktops/laptops. Mobile devices on the other hand, have a variety of popular operating competing for market share and even within a single operating system, each device may host a unique version of the OS. This variety limits the ability for a single piece of malicious code to target a significant percentage of mobile devices.

2. Mobile architectures tend to be more closed than their PC counterparts, with limited access to documentation and debugging tools, making it more difficult (at least initially) to identify the vulnerabilities necessary for malware to propagate.

3. Apps stores present the most popular, or in some cases, the only avenue for deploying new software on mobile devices. This limits the ability of a worm to propagate by directly installing executable code on a mobile device. It also adds a layer of review that software is subject to before it can be deployed on a device.

Like other security professionals, Sutton believes that mobile threats will emerge, but for the reasons I listed above, they'll be very different from the desktop hacks we've all seen. For example, mobile browsers using Javascript are vulnerable to a number of different types of attacks, including clickjacking (that is, being redirected to another, possibly poisoned site or domain), he says. And users who install apps from sites they don't really know are asking for trouble.

That's likely true, but it's a far cry from the hysterical warnings circulating in the popular press. Be careful, yes, but put away that Xanax and enjoy your smartphone.

San Francisco journalist Bill Snyder writes frequently about business and technology. He welcomes your comments and suggestions. Reach him at bill.snyder@sbcglobal.net.

Follow Bill Snyder on Twitter @BSnyderSF. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline.

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