This week, Qualcomm announced Snapdragon Smart Protect, a massive improvement in smartphone security. This could be a life saver for Android, which has had a really poor reputation for security.
While most smartphone platforms, with the exception of BlackBerry, never really took security seriously, Android stands out as kind of a rolling disaster. I’ve seen demonstrations ranging from being able to fire up the microphone and camera remotely to causing catastrophic overheating. After that last one I’ve been a lot more careful with my Android test phones.
We’ve had secure containers like Samsung Knox, but this is like trying to build a bank with a combination lock in full view. It doesn’t matter how strong the door is if you can load malware that can capture the password and ID that opens it.
Qualcomm has gotten serious about this threat with their latest processor family, and has moved to deploy a comprehensive security solution. We are now in the age of the polymorphic virus, which evolves as it spreads, largely rendering scripts, the most common form of virus identification, obsolete. PC anti-virus programs were modified some time ago to address this newer class of virus, but smartphones not — until now. One other kind of virus that hit PCs some time ago were rootkits. These are malware payloads that go under the operating system and are nearly impossible to detect once installed. Qualcomm addressed this exposure as well.
Why Attack Smartphones?
As we increasingly do our shopping and banking, manage our ever-smarter homes and even control our cars with our smartphones, they become an increasingly attractive target. In addition, they contain copies of our email, control our phone conversations, and they have cameras and microphones that can capture what is going on around us. In short they are far more of a potential security threat than PCs ever were. We also have decades of learning that went into writing viruses for PCs that is now being turned to writing malware for smartphones, and sadly, smartphones are about a decade and a half behind PCs in terms of protection.
Apple went down the path of locking their store to their phone and made side loading far more difficult, but Android did not. Thus even though iPhones would likely be the more attractive target due to their richer demographic, the ease with which Android users can be tricked into installing malware makes that platform the virus magnet for the market. Google is starting to take this whole thing seriously and appears to be working to harden their OS, but given the threat, it seems like it is too little and too late.
Qualcomm Snapdragon Smart Protect
This is where Qualcomm had to step in with a hardware/software solution that starts with the processor and provides protection both above and below the operating system. Like most anti-virus products it does partially rely on scripts which identify known viruses and block them, the more compelling features have to do with behavioral monitoring and rootkit protection.
Behavioral monitoring looks to see if the phone and/or any of its apps starts to behave in a questionable fashion, like dumping data or switching on or off some feature connected to security without the user’s involvement or notification. It will block that behavior by default and then alert the user for further action. This won’t prevent the installation of a bad application, but it will prevent that application from executing properly.
It also resides below the OS, so it can monitor changes to both the operating system and its security components. This makes it far harder for a rootkit to be installed and far easier to identify it once it is installed.
The end result is protection against a broad spectrum of malware types and attacks, the majority of which won’t even exist until after this product is in market. To make it more secure, you can then layer on other security products that integrate with this offering, changing what once was a platform too vulnerable to use into one that could actually could be secured enough to be trusted again.
Smart Protect won’t show up on our phones until the Snapdragon 820 processor ships later this year, which means we are mostly talking about phones shipping in the 2016 timeframe. However, this is still a massive improvement for a platform that desperately needed it, and this kind of protection should be required of any device that is to be taken into an area that has been designated secure.
Overall we all should be taking cell phone security far more seriously than we are, but up until now, outside of using a BlackBerry, we didn’t really have a lot of choices. Next year that will change. Our willingness to let insecure phones into our secure areas should evolve with these changes dramatically if we don’t want the next big breach to be our fault.
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