Coming Soon to Your Smartphone: Mobile Ticketing That Keeps Your Transactions Safe

Just because smartphone rail ticketing is a first here in the states doesn't mean mobile malware writers aren't already paying attention

Brian Royer, Contributor

April 25, 2012

5 Min Read

A recent news item in Boston is simultaneously a positive development for the region, but in its wake and given my security Spidey-sense, also raises some concerns.

The Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA), in partnership with Masabi US Ltd., the leading developer of mobile ticketing technology for the transport sector, announced that commuter rail riders -- an estimated two-thirds of whom carry smartphones -- will be able to purchase and display tickets on these devices, enabling the MBTA to make fare collection more efficient.

According to the joint press release, "With applications for iPhone, Android, and Blackberry, customers will be able to seamlessly purchase commuter rail tickets and passes. Once tickets are purchased, customers will be able to use and display directly via their phone screen."

And as reported by Network World, with the rollout of the smartphone ticketing systems this fall the MBTA becomes the first American railway system in the United States to allow riders to preorder and display their train tickets entirely through their smartphones.

Here's how it works: Users download the MBTA's app onto their smartphones and select a starting location and destination. From there they enter in their credit card numbers one time to process their transactions. In subsequent purchases, the app will save the credit card data, and users will only have to enter in their three-digit security codes on the back of their cards for verification. After purchasing their passes, the tickets will then display on their smartphones with a specially designed marker that constantly shifts colors to let train conductors know the ticket is not a simple forgery.

So far, so good, and for commuters as well as "ad hoc" on-demand rail passengers, this is a darn sight better system than carrying around dog-eared commuter passes or constantly having to fish for dollars and cents (and standing in line with others who find themselves in the same circumstances) waiting for a ticket machine to spit out a ticket.

Now, completely separate from this news but occurring over the same weekend was the release of the Third mSecurity Survey (summary PDF), published by Goode Intelligence, a provider of information security and mobile commerce research and analysis.

Among the survey findings, mobile malware incidents rose in 2011 with 24 percent reporting evidence of infection, up from 9 percent in 2010 and 7 percent in 2009.

The report also found that 2011 saw increases in the number of instances of mobile malware, in particular, aimed at the Android platform: "Alarmingly, we have also seen a quick monetization of mobile malware, in particular attacks on the Premium Rate Services (Premium Rate SMS (PSMS) and Premium Rate Numbers (PRN)," the report said.

Quoted in this article, survey author Alan Goode said, "There is a big question over whether information security professionals can keep up with the pace of change currently seen with smart mobile devices (SMD) and can manage the risks associated with them."

When it comes to mobile security, it's a common theme, one echoed by Dark Reading contributing writer Ericka Chickowski in her recent article, "Making Mobile Banking Safe."

Quoting Jaime Blasco, labs manager at AlienVault, "the usage of mobile devices to perform financial activities has grown to be profitable enough to be profitable to the bad guys who target these platforms. Zeus and SpyEye banking Trojans have adapted their techniques to steal mTANs [Mobile Transaction Numbers] on mobile devices."

Moreover, malware writers are also taking advantage of sometime insecure application-delivery mechanisms, especially on the Android platform, to serve up rogue applications meant to mimic legitimate applications.

Chickowski speculates on what the triggers will be for demand versus risk to determine how soon some of those boundaries will be pushed.

Sound familiar? So whether it's institutional mobile security (e.g., banking) or in the context of commuter rail (e.g., the MBTA-Masabi partnership), how do you stay safe using your personal smartphone?

Some Sophos-centric suggestions:

Password-protect sensitive files and devices.
Always password-protect sensitive files on your computer, USB, smartphone, etc. Protecting your devices with strong passwords means you make it incredibly difficult for someone to break in and steal data.

Always use hard-to-guess passwords.
Because the keyboards on smartphones often make entering numbers or special characters a time-consuming and even awkward activity, the use of these characters in a password is conclusively complicated and mostly annoying. Therefore, it makes sense for mobile devices to use a passphrase. A longer phrase consisting of only alphabetic characters can be both easier to remember and, crucially, easier to type on a smartphone keyboard. In this case it is the length of the passphrase that makes it hard to crack. People should use a multiple word phrase and avoid obvious choices, like sports teams (bostonredsox) and celebrities (blackeyedpeas). Length is the key to security with this type of passphrase.

Use only official applications.
It is generally safer to use only official app stores, such as iTunes, Google Play, or Amazon AppStore. Most of the malware found on mobile platforms is distributed through third-party (e.g., unofficial, unauthorized) marketplaces.

Be cautious of suspicious emails and links.
Don't let curiosity get the best of you. Always delete suspicious emails and links. Even opening or viewing these emails and links can compromise your computer and create unwanted problems without your knowledge. Remember, if something looks too good to be true, it probably is.

When it comes to the MBTA, the key security issue is how the credit card data is stored on the phone. A thief who steals the phone itself could potentially buy rail tickets if he guesses the three-digit code from the back of the credit card, but that’s not a path to criminal riches. It is more likely that an electronic attack would attempt to steal the credit card data from the device itself.

In sum, travel smartly and exercise your use of your smartphone the same way. Ultimately, both you as well as your bank account will arrive at your destination intact.

Brian Royer, a security subject matter expert, Sophos U.S., is partnering with SophosLabs to research and report on the latest trends in malware, web threats, endpoint and data protection, mobile security, cloud computing and data center virtualization.

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