New Devices. Same Old Security Issues?

By Charles McColgan | Small Business

Now that the Consumer Electronics Show (CES 2014) is behind us, we’re all in a better position to judge where the market for mobile devices is going, and the implications for security. We may have seen innovative technology by the shedload, but the security issues are still worryingly familiar.

Smartphones are getting bigger, with Huawei and ZTE expanding into the ‘phablet’ category, with 5-inch or 6-inch screens, somewhere between a phone and a tablet. HTC, LG, Motorola and Nokia may not have had any new smartphones to show us, but apparently Samsung is looking to launch the Galaxy S5 in April. Whether this will incorporate eye scanning technology, as has been suggested, remains to be seen.

It is hoped that such a trend to biometrics may make up for the difficulties users face in managing passwords. With Apple having already introduced the Touch ID fingerprint sensor in its iPhone 5S, iris recognition would reinforce the application of this technology in mobile transactions, although this would depend on the quality of the camera.

Keep Taking the Tablets

Samsung may not have been launching a new smartphone, but they were certainly active on tablets front, with the launch of their NotePro and TabPro ranges. Sadly, even the wonders of their 105-inch HD screen TV could not prevent the meltdown, and rapid exit, of Transformers director Michael Bay, but what else can you do if your teleprompter goes down? Call for the script girl?

Alcatel OneTouch covered the entire product line, including smartphone, phablet, plus a couple of ‘fun and colorful’ tablets. More budget models were seen, including the Acer Iconia A1-380 and Iconia B1-720, for $180 and $130. But the model that commands the rock-bottom niche is the UbiSlate from Datawind, priced at just $38.

Gartner recently noted that global PC sales fell for their seventh consecutive quarter, recording a 6.9% decline on the same period last year, their worst ever. Tablets, however, saw strong growth, especially in emerging economies where many choose it as their first computing device over the PC.

Malware Goes Mobile

Tablets or smartphones, analysts are equally sure that 2014 will see more mobile malware, for four reasons. The prevalence of these devices. The growth of m-commerce. The fact that cybercriminals have had another year to get good at this. And the trusting nature of the – mostly young – users.

Mobile apps are seen as a tempting target, given the market is expected to grow to over $60bn in revenue by 2016. While apps sourced from third-party app stores are most likely to be malicious, those from the regular Android app store are still seen as more secure than on the average PC. Apple controls its own iOS eco-system on the App Store, so can push out updates that much more quickly, although potential security flaws have recently been identified in iPhone and iPad banking apps.

Another two major security issues, about which the industry has often been accused of putting its head in the sand, are first, BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) which, it is believed, will represent 35% of total consumer tablets and smartphones by 2018; and second, the question of a kill switch.

This would block stolen phones from being reactivated, making them less valuable to thieves. While Apple’s ‘activation lock’ performs this function, similar anti-theft software proposed by Samsung has been rejected by the top four US carriers and their CTIA trade group, because it could conceivably be used by a hacker to disable the phone. Given that 30% of robberies in the US involve phone theft, this seems an inadequate reason for such ostrich-like behaviour.

A Wearable on Every Wrist

For some, this was the year of the wearable. Smartwatches, Google Glass-style eyewear, and wristbands which track your fitness and monitor your health. Some analysts believe we will see half a million of these devices shipped in the second half of 2014 (from 200,000 in H1). Others expect sales of smartwatches to reach 12m in 2014, and possibly over 100m in 2017.

Such optimism may have been justified by Accenture’s Digital Consumer Tech Survey 2014, which found that 52% of consumers are interested in buying wearable technologies, 46% in smart watches, and 42% in Internet-connected glasses. Phablets were also popular. Of those who were planning to buy a traditional smartphone in the next year, 52% said they would prefer a phablet.

Juniper Research even expects annual sales of smart glasses to top 10 million by 2018, with applications in the medicine, healthcare, education, field service and manufacturing sectors. A Forrester survey found that 12% of adult US consumers would use this kind of device as contacts or eyeglasses but such ’glass gravitators’ were most mostly aged 18-33.

The Core, the Car, and The Internet of Things

The same basic technology can have many applications. Sony Mobile’s ‘SmartWear Experience’ was based on the removable Core unit, a tiny activity tracker which can be used in many other wearable products, as can Intel’s Edison, a 22nm dual core Intel PC the size of an SD card.

Even the car industry admitted it had to work together. As a Ford executive said, why sink resources into developing technology, like a heads-up display, if their customers will be using wearables any way, in or out of the car?

Google announced it was doing exactly this, by forming the Open Automotive Alliance (OAA) with Audi, GM, Honda, Hyundai and Nvidia. However, bodies like the UK’s Department of Transport have acted quickly to prevent Google Glass being worn by drivers, while in the States some ‘Glasshole’ has already received a ticket for distracted driving.

And if your car can be connected, why not your fridge? Samsung took the opportunity to announce its Smart Home project, a service which allows home appliances and lighting to be controlled through an app installed on the smartphone or TV. Samsung already makes washing machines and refrigerators, as well as smartphones, and plans to support third-party devices over the longer term.

Similar systems were also exhibited by LG, Archos, and AT&T, while Google recently attracted attention with its $3.2bn purchase of Nest, the manufacturer of a thermostat which enables heating control from a smartphone. However, in what has been called a ‘breakout year’ for the internet of things, concerns were expressed over the privacy and security aspects of such potentially intimate technology. The type of data collected by such ‘smart appliances’ might be deeply personal and sensitive, and yet consumers were often not given a choice over how that data was stored or who it was shared with.

Even more unsettling is the prospect of a breach. When your company, your PC, or your mobile is hacked that’s traumatic enough, not to mention costly. But your home? Your medical records? Your health monitoring? Your pacemaker? In the words of one exhibitor, if an object is connected to the Internet, it can be found. And if it has an operating system, it can be hacked. Security priorities must change, and quickly, before 2014 becomes the year of the connected home break-in.

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