Smartphones have become popular for the same reasons they make great surveillance devices. Location, cameras, mic, sensors, apps, and operating systems are incredible for work and play. These same features also create virtual windows into the lives of unsuspecting consumers. The American security martyr, Edward Snowden, has accurately expressed concerns regarding the insecure nature of mainstream technology. A completely secure mainstream consumer device is virtually impossible since the functions and software people want to use are insecure by nature. The question becomes to what extent can people accept the risks inherent to living in an online world and what are they willing to sacrifice to minimize those risks.
How Mobile Phones Reduce Privacy
Privacy risks of first-generation mobile phones.
Phones connect to phone network antennas (‘cell towers’). Phones, using unique identification such as a SIM card, must identify themselves to the network in order to connect, roam, place, and receive calls. Each cell tower’s location is known to the network. Because of this, turning on a mobile phone reveals its location within a range of 0.5-4km (depending on density of cell towers). Cell tower triangulation is a tracking method that uses signal strength (RSSI) between a phone and at least 3 towers to estimate the location of the phone. In countries where a phone number is linked to a person (meaning ID is required to get a number) networks know the general location of individual users.
Authorities, with a court order, could tap into mobile phone lines. It was necessary to go through the phone company to get access to listen in on calls.
Before smartphones 3rd party apps on phones were rare or non-existent. The only software on a phone was the basic firmware that came with the phone. With no way to send or receive data bigger than SMS messages the risk of security breaches was lower than today.
Privacy risks from today’s smartphones.
Google, Apple, and other app publishers have created highly accurate databases of Wi-Fi networks around the world. The databases include where networks are located. The phones we use daily are used to obtain information about the Wi-Fi networks by scanning networks and sending that data to Google, Apple, and other companies. These Wi-Fi location databases are constantly updated and very accurate. In today’s world your location is visible within a few feet, indoors or outdoors, thanks to Wi-Fi network triangulation and GPS, respectively.
Cameras and microphones pose security threats because software can silently turn them on anytime, even when you think the phone is off. Android is programmed to ask users to grant permission for apps to access features or files. There’s risk that a user grants permission and then the app acts intrusively. Another risk is that the brand making the phone has modified the Android source code to give specific apps special access without telling the user.
Biometrics, used for authentication purposes, such as facial recognition and fingerprint create a new privacy risk. Biometric details are encrypted, yet hacking risk remains.
Tapping calls used to require a formal process since only the phone company had this power. Now that people use phones for more than just calling and phones are connected to the internet tapping everything is a risk. The risk now comes from a compromised operating system or apps. Malicious software can capture screenshots, record (calls, video or nearby conversations), track keyboard input, steal files, or siphon anything that goes through the phone.
Android is open source. Phone manufacturers can customize Android source code in many different ways. “Android” phones sold in China are so modified that they don’t use or even support Google’s apps. An unethical smartphone brand can easily sell a phone that gives them complete access to your life without your (or anyone’s) knowledge. This happened before when a brand called Blu released phones with an embedded app that sent user data to servers in China without their or the users’ knowledge.
Other elements of security risk come from sending information online. This risk holds true for any online device and not specifically a smartphone. To learn more about what malicious apps can acquire from a mobile phone search the internet for ‘Android spy app’ and see for yourself.
Is it Possible to Make a Secure Phone?
Speciality secure phones exist and come with a premium price tag since they require extensive operating system customization. These phones greatly improve security, but in the world of security risk never completely goes away. For normal consumer grade products Apple does a good job with security because iOS is closed source and apps must download through their app store. Apple still has access to your personal information, but this is unavoidable in a normal consumer device.
There are simple features to improve security that would be easy for phone manufacturers to start offering in mass market consumer phones. For example, put a physical sliding cover in front of the camera. A recent Chinese brand came out with a pop-up camera. This way the camera lens is blocked. A physical button to disconnect the microphone ensures ‘off-line’ conversations remain private. This is a low cost feature. Lastly a physical power switch on the phone would cut the power circuit to ensure the electronics are really off when the phone is shut down. This could also be achieved using a removable battery, although not as conveniently.
Security Differences between Standard and Custom Android Phones
All the mass market Android phones that come with Google’s suite of apps (GMS – Google Mobile Services) must pass thousands of tests that are part of the GMS certification process. Google mandates that Android devices using Google apps pass GMS certification. The purpose of GMS is to ensure that all Android devices, regardless of which brand makes them, perform to the same standards. Part of these tests cover security. Phones sold in China use a highly modified version of Android and don’t go through GMS certification because China blocks Google services.
Apps available on Google Play and Apple’s AppStore have to follow security protocols. Even screened apps can request extraneous data. One example are apps which read the clipboard of a device. This means the apps access whatever text has recently been copied, regardless if the copy happened in that app or not.
Custom Android devices, if properly tested and configured, provide less risk because the company making the device controls the apps which go on the device. To ensure the security of any device you sell, even if you use Hatch to make it, it’s recommended to use a professional security company to audit the device. Thanks to a third party security audit we were notified about ways to improve the security of a device that’s currently under development.
Living Under a Microscope
Innovation comes with risks and rewards. Innovation surrounding the internet and personal mobile computing highlights the extremes on both sides. When the internet went mainstream early adapters could check yesterday’s sports scores and stock quotes. Online experiences were limited. Privacy wasn’t a concern. Since then the internet has developed into the center of how people work, communicate, play, and live. As this trend continues, information becomes more centralized and efficiently processed. Humans’ independence, privacy, and freedoms are converging into a few hands. Tech companies, governments, and hackers are gaining leverage over society as a result. This is the price of connected convenience. Just like a bad hangover, time will reveal the costs of short sighted pleasures. Along the way we can, maybe, celebrate small victories like blocking a camera or cutting the mic.