I read. A lot. In a given month I consume hundreds of technology related articles. A couple times a month an article alerts me to a new “threat” facing mobile device users. Just as I was sitting down to write this article a new headline flashed in my newsfeed: “Android Ransomware Changes a Device’s PIN Code.” Two weeks before: “Hack Brief: Malware Hits 225,000 iPhones”. Perhaps you’ve also seen these headlines and wondered, “Should I worry about viruses and malicious software on my smartphone?”
How Many Smartphones Are Impacted by Mobile Malware?
This past April Google released data collected by its Verify Apps feature which scans and detects malicious applications on Android devices. In 2014 less than 1% of Android users worldwide were affected by potential malware. Security firms have applauded Apple for its near spotless record as well.
The truth is, malware is rare on smartphones. Both Apple and Google require users to obtain applications through their respective App and Play Stores. While that can be an annoyance for some users who want the freedom to install applications not specifically made for their device, the practice has served users well. Before an app is available in either app store it must be certified by Apple or Google. Part of this certification process includes a review to ensure the app is free of viruses and malware.
Have apps containing bad code made it into these stores? Yes. The most public instance of this occurred in September when a group of developers in China attempted to take a shortcut in their code development and inadvertently used a tainted version of Apple’s XCode at the start of their development process. (Let that be a lesson as to why you should only obtain software from authorized distributors.) As a result, the apps developed on that tainted code contained hidden adware that made it through Apple’s initial review. The tainted software represented less than 0.02% of the apps in Apple’s library. The apps were pulled from the App store within 1 day of the discovery of the adware and users were notified of their exposure. Apple has since modified its review process to better identify this sort of tainted software.
What about the two articles listed in my opening paragraph? The phones impacted by those threats both had one thing in common: they belonged to users who had made their phones vulnerable by deciding to jailbreak or root their phones. This is where the real threat of malware lies.
What is Jailbreaking and Rooting?
Jailbreaking is a term associated with iPhones while rooting is a term associated with Android devices. When a user jailbreaks their iPhone or roots their Android phone they are essentially hacking their device to gain access to areas of the phone’s operating system that are not accessible through any other means. These users have more control over their phones. If a user jailbreaks their iPhone, for example, they can edit the functionality of the buttons on the phone, change the look of icons, and install software not available on Apple’s App Store thus bypassing the primary layer of virus and malware security that is standard to the iPhone.
Jailbreaking/rooting is not without repercussions. Apple’s knowledgebase points to several iPhone performance issues related to jailbreaking. They include security vulnerabilities, instability, shortened battery life, unreliable voice and data services, disruption of standard services to native apps (such as Visual Voicemail, Weather and Stocks), and the inability to apply future software updates.
Increased exposure to malware is a significant consequence associated to jailbreaking or rooting. An article appearing last fall in StateTech Magazine reports 100% of all documented iOS malware has been aimed specifically at jailbroken devices.
Keeping Your Smartphone Safe from Malware and Viruses
Should you worry about malware on your smartphone? Provided you do not jailbreak or root your phone, the answer is no. While keeping your PC safe from malware and viruses takes some effort, the security built into today’s smartphones makes smartphone malware and virus prevention relatively effortless. Simply practice good hygiene. Keep your smartphone’s operating system up-to-date with the latest patches for newly discovered vulnerabilities and only install apps available through the app store made specifically for your phone.