Why Androids are less secure than iPhones

Evolving mobile computing platforms offer a target-rich environment to hackers and have not fully benefitted from 20 years of experience in securing desktop and laptop computers, according to a recent study by McAfee Labs.

“Mobile devices are not going to be less susceptible to security problems,” concludes the report, Securing Mobile Devices. Even with improved security, the devices are likely to remain attractive targets. “The overall threat of malware might decline, but the damage to mobile devices is likely to be high because smart phones are always connected, they always carry some personal data, and they are even equipped with small cameras, microphones and positioning devices.”

The problems don’t stem from inherent insecurity of the devices or operating systems, said Igor Muttik, the report’s author. Most mobile operating systems are built on Unix and Linux and are reasonably secure.

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“We shouldn’t be taking about the security of the device itself,” Muttik said. “What matters is the security of the entire environment in which the device is operating.”

This environment includes the marketplace for third-party applications because these apps have become the principal vector for delivering malware to the end users. Unless an Apple device is “jailbroken” to allow unauthorized apps to run on it, all of its apps must first be vetted. The Android model is more open and less secure.

“Apple’s iOS is currently the biggest rival of Android,” the report says. “Apple so far has done an excellent job of securing its devices; as we write this there were no reported cases of malware for iPhones that have not been jailbroken.”

There are other mobile security features besides the software distribution model. Android applications must be signed, but there is no requirement for signatures to be certified, so many apps are self-signed. Android apps also must declare the permissions that they will be requesting at the time of installation and the users has the opportunity only of accepting or declining the entire app at one time without blocking individual permissions.

Signing and permissions are not issues for end users in the Apple model because the Apple iStore itself is a controlled environment.
The differing approaches have both advantages and disadvantages for vendors. Because of the open app policy, Android is more popular with consumers and developers, as well as with hackers.

According to McAfee, Android, released in 2008, is the fastest growing smart-phone OS, with 33 percent of the market at the end of 2010, compared with 31 percent for Symbian, 16 percent for Apple and 14 percent for Research In Motion’s BlackBerry. Symbian, which has been around longer, accounts for a huge 47 percent of malware now in the wild, followed by Android with 32 percent. Apple is included in the 13 percent “others” category.

But Android is growing quickly in popularity with hackers. In the second quarter of this year, it accounted for 63 percent of new malware, with Symbian at 7 percent. Java ME had 20 percent, and Apple is once again tucked into the “others” that account for a total of just 4 percent.

Muttik said that there are useful solutions on the market to help securely administer mobile devices for use in the enterprise. He said he uses an iPhone for work with security policies and remote-wipe capability administered by McAfee. And “there are some controls in the device itself,” such as the ability to change a personal identification number to a more secure password. “Shoulder surfing reveals 4-digit PINs with amazing ease,” he warned.

Overall all, Muttik is not critical of the rush to functionality that has left mobile devices less security than they could be. Rapidly advancing functionality is necessary to ensure adoption of the technology, he said. “That’s life. All new technologies have security risks. It’s a never-ending spiral, when we invent a new technology, it gets abused.”

He said the answer is to adequately secure and manage those devices that are going to be given access to sensitive resources.


About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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