Surge in demand for smartphone security tools following NSA revelations

Wednesday 26 February 2014 17.09
The rising popularity of smartphones has made them a source of interest for digital scammers
The rising popularity of smartphones has made them a source of interest for digital scammers

Smartphone security firms are reporting a surge in demand since former NSA contractor Edward Snowden's revelations of US and British spying activities.

It is an overdue trend, say companies selling anti-virus and firewall software, as well as cryptology specialists gathered at the four-day Mobile World Congress which opened Monday in Barcelona.

Anti-virus software seller Norton estimated in its 2013 annual survey of 13,000 adults that 48% of smartphone and tablet owners took no basic security measures on their devices.

With concerns reawakened by the debate around Snowden's revelations of US government spying, California-based online security specialists Silent Circle and Spanish smartphone company Geeksphone have launched a privacy-focused device, Blackphone.

The smartphone, which sells for €457, has a 4.7 inch, high-definition screen, and uses Silent Circle's Private OS version of Android, offering anonymous search, anonymous remote data wiping and private calls, texting, and file exchange.

"The Snowden disclosures have certainly raised awareness about some of these issues," said Silent Circle president Phil Zimmermann.

"I think what we have seen is that there is a heightened sensitivity to the implications of what a loss of privacy can mean," he told a news conference at the mobile fair.

"Just to be clear, we have never claimed that we are offering an NSA-proof device and we will not make such a claim. It would be, perhaps, foolhardy," he added.

"But we are offering a tool that makes a huge difference to somebody who is currently using no privacy tools at all."

As smartphone sales grow and the personal computer declines, hackers are on the lookout for the growing opportunity offered by smartphones, industry players say.

A decade ago, mobile viruses caused problems such as making your device send a premium-rate SMS.

But with the boom in smartphones, their owners' exposure has grown because the devices have access to the Internet, a camera, sound and even payment systems.

"For attackers, it is a business. With the decline of PC, they are looking at how they can make money with smartphones and tablets," said Con Mallon, head of mobile products at security software group Symantec.

"The threats that are moving from the desktop to mobile are not new, but the context is new," he said.

The universe of Android applications provides an open doorway to pirates, who can simply copy the most popular applications and wait for users to click on them and provide their personal information, analysts say.

Symantec estimates that the number of viruses detected quadrupled in a year to 273,000 in June 2013 on the Android platform.

Finnish network services group Nokia Solutions and Networks offers carriers the possibility of directly protecting smartphone users on their clients' networks.

Its "mobile guard" system detects abnormal traffic generated when a virus is active on the network, allowing the operator to send a fix directly to the affected smartphone.