Is your phone a hacker target?

October 23, 2017 Vawn Himmelsbach

How to protect your smartphone from online spies and cybercriminals.

Protect your smartphone from hackers

A few weeks ago, I was having dinner with friends and catching up with each other — our conversations often verging into random topics. Our phones were all out on the table or nearby, a sign of the times — but we rarely, if ever, used them.

Later in the evening, we all noticed ads on our various social media feeds directly related to our dinner conversation — as specific as float tanks and Swedish meatballs. That was a hard 'coincidence' to swallow. Clearly, our phones were ‘listening’ in, because I’ve never received an ad for Swedish meatballs before.

If you’ve followed the Edward Snowden story (or watched the movie), you likely have a heightened awareness of Big Brother in the Digital Age — and how hacking into mobile phones, smart appliances and Wi-Fi routers isn’t just a potential threat, but a reality.

Most users have at least basic anti-malware protection on their laptops and PCs, and for the most part, it’s mandatory in the workplace. But users are far less likely to have anti-malware on their phones, whether those phones are issued by the business or if they're part of a BYOD program where employees use their personal phones for businesses purposes (and who doesn’t, these days?).

So, it makes sense that smartphones are becoming a target by data-stealing hackers. Smartphone infections rose nearly 400 per cent in 2016 and accounted for 85 per cent of all mobile device infections in the second half of 2016, according to Nokia’s Threat Intelligence Report. While Android devices were the primary target, iOS devices also suffered attacks, primarily by surveillance software.

And this is only the beginning…so how do you protect yourself? Clearly, it’s not realistic to encrypt everything and delete all your apps. But protecting yourself doesn’t have to be complicated.

Here are six easy tips to protect your smartphone from hackers.

1. Passwords and biometric security

Passwords are a pain, but try to avoid auto-login for apps. If someone does hack into your phone, they will then have free rein to rummage through your online apps.

Start by keeping your phone locked when you’re not using it, even at home. Use a six-digit password and, if available, biometric security. Both Apple and Google offer ‘find my device’ services, with the ability to remotely lock or erase your phone, so it’s as simple as making sure that functionality is enabled.

2. Install the updates

Equally as simple, keep your operating system up to date. If you have an older phone, you may need to upgrade to a newer model to receive the latest OS updates.

This is something, though, that many of us put off. The installation process is often slow, and sometimes it changes the interface we know and love. But OS updates often include important security fixes and patches — so don’t put it off.

“A huge proportion of successful hacks exploit vulnerabilities that have already been patched; exposing yourself unnecessarily is just daft,” writes Darien Graham-Smith in The Guardian.

3. Use your spidey-senses when clicking links

As is the case with PCs and laptops, malware doesn’t always sneak in the backdoor — it walks right in through the front door when users download malicious apps or click on malicious links.

Use reputable app stores, and when downloading an app consider whether it really needs to access your camera or microphone — don’t grant permissions unless necessary. As Graham-Smith points out in The Guardian, Android users should take particular care, since Google’s app-vetting process isn’t as strict as Apple’s.

4. Keep your phone “clean”

Also, it’s a good idea to regularly delete apps you’re no longer using, and to keep existing apps up to date (outdated versions could expose you to risk). You can set up your phone to automatically update apps to ensure you’ve always got the latest version.

5. Use protection

It’s also worth considering anti-malware for your phone, particularly if you have an Android device. While Apple’s proprietary nature can be annoying at times, the benefit, of course, is that it offers a slightly more controlled environment. It’s not infallible, though, as Nokia’s Threat Intelligence Report points out.

Anti-malware tools from reputable security firms (like McAfee and Avast) will scan for viruses and malware, and even alert you if an app you want to install is considered suspicious or malicious. Tom’s Guide has tested various mobile anti-malware options, from free to premium, to help you find the right fit.

6. Think twice in public Wi-Fi

Protecting your device is one thing — it’s also important to consider where you’re using it.

Many of us will choose public Wi-Fi rather than eating through our data plan or using a cumbersome virtual private network (VPN). That’s fine if you’re scanning the news or browsing (legit) websites. It’s not such a great idea if you’re doing anything that requires you to enter passwords or personal information — it’s easy for hackers to see everything you’re doing over open Wi-Fi.

That’s why some company-issued phones come with a built-in VPN, but there’s also the option of purchasing one on your app store of choice. It will cost you a few bucks a month, but if you’re using your phone like a personal computer, then the added security and privacy of a VPN will be well worth it.

Smartphones are all too often an easy target for hackers. Make sure yours isn’t one.

Up Next: Are you doing everything to safeguard your company from hackers?

How to protect your company from hackers

About the Author

Vawn Himmelsbach

Vawn Himmelsbach is a freelance writer and editor based in Toronto. She has covered technology and travel for 15 years, for media outlets such as CBCNews.ca, The Globe & Mail, Metro News, ITBusiness, PCworld Canada and Computerworld Canada. She also spent three years living abroad and working as an Asian correspondent.

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