Handheld Hacking and Smartphone Security

Introduction to Hacking Mobile Devices, Ethical Hacking

Introduction to Hacking Mobile Devices

Suffice to say, smartphones have become an indispensable device for a plethora of users. Besides being a fundamental tool in modern society, smartphones are also used by corporations, industry and government institutions. Organizations in public and private sectors actively embed smartphones into their IT systems including those who adopt a BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) model, similar to companies that provide smartphones under the COPE (Corporately-Owned or Personally-Enabled) operating model.

For many users, their increasing dependence on smartphones makes it their primary computing device. With this in mind, it is vitally important to assess and be aware of the possible security risks and threats facing smartphone technology. Equally, it is also important to understand these threats to then come up with solutions for mitigating those security risks.

Handheld Hacking

Like most handheld devices these days, smartphones can function as network clients, offer plenty of storage space and contain powerful processors faster than consumer computers from a decade ago. These added functionalities make smartphones an obvious target for hackers and malicious operators. Besides being targets themselves, smartphones can be used as tools to launch exploits when connected to computer systems and networks that are vulnerable.

In other words, smartphones can be used for handheld hacking.

Ignorance and a lack of general awareness by the user are usually the most important factor leading to vulnerabilities. It is important to understand the risks involved with smartphone usage, the potential impact of such vulnerabilities and the security measures required to curb security risks.

The risks involved with an over-reliance on smartphones

The level of risk in using a smartphone is directly relative to the user and the need. For instance, senior management or board members and high-ranking officials in critical infrastructure and/or government organizations are highly likely access sensitive information, data and documents with their smartphones and may even use the phone as a storage device for important information. Any breach or smartphone hack targeting these users is bound to result in consequences far more significant than a similar breach with a normal smartphone user.

With such high stakes, organizations and corporations usually have clear policies on security in place. These network and security policies are usually based on a detailed risk assessment specific to the organization. In work environments requiring a high-security clearance, general usage of smartphones is usually restricted and smartphone functionality is usually customized to lower the security risk.

Critical security risks involving smartphones usually include:

  • Loss or theft of the smartphone. Unless the smartphone is encrypted, information stored on a device that is lost or stolen will be accessible to unauthorized users.
  • Unintentional disclosure. While not deliberate, but information can be disclosed and shared unintentionally after falling prey to phishing attacks, etc.
  • Spyware infestation. A smartphone infected with spyware runs the risk of malicious hackers gaining access to the phone remotely.
  • Malware intrusion. Keylogging programs, phishing scams and other malware specifically devised to collect credit card data or email and banking credentials can also lead to devastating consequences.
  • Surveillance attack. These exploits are developed to hijack a smartphone’s hardware feature such as the camera, microphone or the built-in GPS system. Essentially, the smartphone becomes a tool for spying. Additional third party software can also conduct surveillance on the smartphone user.
  • Network Spoofing. A rogue GSM access point (carrier towers) or Wi-Fi connection can be used by an attacker to intercept and collect information and data from users engaging in communication over such networks.
  • Diallerware attack. A malicious application engages in phone calls and text messages at premium rates (usually international calls and texts).

The impact of handheld hacking

The potential impact of handheld hacking is subjective to each individual user and the information shared or breached as the result of a hack. The results and consequences of various vulnerabilities are listed above and the smartphone user is usually the one analyze the impact and damages of a breach.

Security measures for smartphones

Cybersecurity experts and researchers will always insist upon the fundamental belief that there is no such thing as – 100% security. However, security practices and measures can be embraced and followed by smartphone users to enhance the phone’s security and lower vulnerabilities. Straightforward measures to educate smartphone users include:

  • Ensuring a smartphone is never left unattended. Always turn the device screen when it is not in use and a screen-off feature after 2 or 3 minutes of idle time is always recommended.
  • Setting a password or a PIN lock for the home screen. This increases the security encryption for the device and will deter criminals from using the phone when it is locked after being stolen or used in an authorized manner.
  • Configuring an auto-lock. Setting up an automatic lock to raise the fences when the phone is idling can be crucial to a user’s privacy.
  • Using the SIM Lock. Taking advantage of the SIM password feature whenever available, as is the case with most modern smartphones also counts for good practice.
  • Trusted applications. If a user has disabled the default application feature settings, it is always advisable to be absolutely certain of the credibility of an application before installing it onto the smartphone. Verified sources such as the Google Play Store usually will not pose such concerns.
  • Keeping with the update cycles. It’s recommended that users always keep the mobile operating system up-to-date, be it with Android, iOS, Windows phone or other platforms. Tweaking controls to automatically set the smartphone to download updates and patches are recommended.
  • Embrace it. Always use encryption, wherever available. Try and access websites over the HTTPS platform and, if possible, apply encryption to your internal memory card within the smartphone.
  • Employing Anti-malware. Mobile security applications are available from trusted sources and it is important to keep anti-malware software updated to combat the newest threats.
  • Avoiding insecure networks. Security researchers will always urge caution when connecting to an open Wi-Fi network. Connecting to protected & secure Wi-Fi networks and mobile data from a trusted carrier also counts as a good security habit.
  • Look at links closely. Being proactive in looking at links or attachments sent via email (including those from trusted sources) will help in avoiding spear phishing campaigns, scams, loss of privacy and identity theft.
  • A secure disposal. Upgrading to a new phone? Switching smartphones? Always ensure that the smartphone being used is securely disposed or recycled. These measures come after securely erasing or wiping all data, using the factory reset and the removal of the SIM card.
  • Being vigilant. If a smartphone is stolen or lost beyond recovery despite your best efforts, ensure that this is reported to the relevant authorities as quickly as possible. Additional safety features can also be used to remotely lock the smartphone, locate it and even wipe the phone’s entire memory and data if it is lost or stolen. Additionally, disabling the smartphone’s built-in GPS function that could be used to track the user as a part of a wider surveillance attack, will help.

Naturally, smartphones and other devices will always be a target for malicious operators and cybercriminals but being aware of the risks and impact of a breach, along with embracing good security practices will help users in keeping handheld hacking and other security threats at bay.


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