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Risk

6/30/2010
04:26 PM
George V. Hulme
George V. Hulme
Commentary
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Which Platform Is Safer: Android, Blackberry, or iPhone?

With the hand-held platform battle over market share heating up, more people are wondering just which platforms may be safer from attackers and snoops.

With the hand-held platform battle over market share heating up, more people are wondering just which platforms may be safer from attackers and snoops.Gartner analyst John Pescatore posed the question in his blog last Friday, likening some smart phone platforms to the PCs open platform and others to the more locked-down mainframe. Pescatore noted that, so far, the smart phones with more closed eco-systems are the most popular. Here's what he had to say:

• Blackberry - a very tightly controlled platform, very limited ability for users to create, install and share applications. Great from a security perspective, but in reality the Blackberry gained market share because it was the first portable email+phone device and not really because of the smartphone/application side of things.

• Windows Mobile - as you would expect, Microsoft took the approach of making a tiny, little handheld PC with a cellphone buried inside. Lots more freedom for users to install and share applications, but not all that successful in the marketplace.

• iPhone - the iPhone really is a little tiny mainframe. It is a closed platform, Apple decides what applications get on the whitelist (the App Store) but it is a really, really big whitelist - users don't notice the boundaries. It is like when you put a goldfish in a bathtub - "I'm free!!" shouts the goldfish. Life can be pretty good, security-wise, if you can keep all your users in a bathtub.

As Pescatore noted, the Droid OS is designed to closely resemble the PC and its open ability to run lots of applications not vetted by a central authority. That fact could quite possibly open the phone to the same types of malware that have plagued PCs for generations now. And if an analysis from mobile security firm SMobile Systems, released last week, of more than 48,000 applications available on the Android is correct: that is exactly what could happen:

• 20 percent of applications in the Android market grant a third party application access to private or sensitive information that an attacker could use for malicious purposes, such as Identity Theft, mobile banking fraud and corporate espionage; 5 percent of applications have the ability to place a call to any number, without requiring user intervention;

• 2 percent of market submissions can allow an application to send unknown premium SMS messages without user intervention.

That data certainly doesn't look good for Android. And Google undoubtedly needs to take additional steps to limit the amount of access applications have to other areas of the platform, and what can be done without user intervention.

But this doesn't mean other platforms such as iPhone and Blackberry are safe, either.

In February a senior security researcher for Veracode demonstrated how using the RIM API (and without leveraging any software exploits or Blackberry vulnerabilities) was able to snoop nearly at-will on the device. Then, when it comes to the iPhone, developer Nicolas Seriot in December released a proof-of-concept application, SpyPhone, that demonstrated how the public iPhone API can be used to grab data from other applications, such as the keyboard cache or address book.

The safe assumption is that the phone platform you use isn't less, or more, secure than any others: and take caution on the Web sites you visit and the applications you install.

For my security and technology observations throughout the day, find me on Twitter.

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