One approach to smart-phone security: Ranking the apps

Symantec compares apps against its malware database to give them security scores

Smart phones are computing devices, but the standard PC-based approach to online security will not work with them. A laptop/desktop PC and a smart phone are inherently different devices with different security needs. A smart phone is a computing power-sensitive piece of equipment that would not support standard antivirus or other anti-malware software ported from a computer all that well.

“The characteristics are a little bit different.  [Smart-phone makers] have to develop their software differently,” said Joe Pasqua, vice president of research at Symantec Research Labs. “But, the fact of the matter is ... there is more and more sensitive information on these devices than ever before, both personal and corporate information.”

But that does not mean that a completely different approach is needed. The software may change, but the characteristics of an attack are fundamentally the same. Hackers are looking for information that can lead them to monetary gain and smart phones have become, as Pasqua put it, “a very rich target.”


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“We had to kind of step back and figure out how to deal with that because if there is a rich target out there, someone is going to go after it,” Pasqua said. “We can't take what we do with a PC and just slap it on a phone. It just doesn't work.”

What Pasqua and his team have been cooking up in the Symantec Research Labs is actually a lot like what they do with PC security. In the PC realm, one of Symantec's strategies is to be able to tag and identify various types of spyware, other malware, viruses and so forth to feed into a database where  information on every other malevolent threat Symantec has ever come across is stored. That allows the company to quickly identify and respond to different variations of attacks and can help with disassembling zero-day attacks (those that have not been seen in any iteration before) by measuring their characteristics against the database.

This is Symantec’s security ranking profile engine, and the company is bringing this approach to the mobile application realm.

The process goes like this: You, the mobile user, download an app from one of the various application stores (Apple, Android, etc.). Symantec runs that application through its database to come up with a ranking reputation for that app. You then decide whether you want to download that app based on the score.

“The basic idea is that we help our community through sort of a wisdom-of-crowds type of approach to find out what is good and what is bad,” Pasqua said. “This is really well-suited to mobile for a couple of reasons. The first reason is that all of that analysis, that number crunching, that we do is all on the back end. It is in the Symantec cloud. None of that is done on your phone. All the phone has to do is ask Symantec, 'How does this app look to you?' All the computing is done on the back end. Then it gives you a rating and you decide what to do with it.”

Enterprises such as those in the federal government can then institute rules based on that reputation ranking. On a 1 to 100 scale, some enterprises may say that it is forbidden to download apps with a score less than 90, for instance.

The ability to perform these functions in the cloud could be a good strategy for mobile computing. Even though most smart phones these days are more powerful than the laptop computers from seven or eight years ago, they are much more power sensitive.

Symantec is working on another approach to mobile security similar to what it does with PCs. When an application is downloaded, Symantec's DFA process will use its cloud and technology to break the app into its constituent parts to make sure it is doing what it says it is doing. For instance, if an application has permission to access your phone’s contacts and send messages, Symantec will attempt to make sure that it is doing so in the prescribed function and not in some malicious manner (such as sending phishing attacks to all your contacts or SMS messages to premium text services).

The DFA capability should be ready sometime this year.

About the Author

Dan Rowinski is a staff reporter covering communications technologies.

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