I was watching the History Channel recently, and happened to catch “101 Gadgets That Changed The World.” It’s an ambitious ranking, counting down the inventions that have altered the face of mankind. The device that tops the list? The smartphone.

These days, the thought of leaving home without a “mini computer” in your pocket or purse is unthinkable for a growing number of people. Android alone has experienced a surge of activations, up to 500,000 per day. This growth is one reason why the platform is being targeted for viruses and trojans, says Sian John, a Norton mobile security expert. The other is its open-source nature: “Phones actually have more security built into them than PCs. But because Android is open source, it’s easier for people to write malicious apps.”

According to Symantec, makers of the Norton Anti-Virus suite, the Android attacks are only just getting started. The company released a whitepaper called “A Window into Mobile Device Security,” which analyzes the security protocols for iOS and Android. The paper also assessed the biggest virus threats to the platform — such as games that grabbed credit card numbers, as well as the Holy F***ing Bible app, which sent unauthorized (and unsavory) texts to the contacts in phone’s addressbook.

The major findings include:

  • While offering improved security over traditional desktop-based operating systems, both iOS and Android are still vulnerable to many existing categories of attacks.
  • iOS’s security model offers strong protection against traditional malware, primarily due to Apple’s rigorous app certification process and their developer certification process, which vets the identity of each software author and weeds out attackers.
  • Google has opted for a less rigorous certification model, permitting any software developer to create and release apps anonymously, without inspection. This lack of certification has arguably led to today’s increasing volume of Android-specific malware.
  • Users of both Android and iOS devices regularly synchronize their devices with 3rd-party cloud services (e.g., web-based calendars) and with their home desktop computers. This can potentially expose sensitive enterprise data stored on these devices to systems outside the governance of the enterprise..
  • So-called “jailbroken” devices, or devices whose security has been disabled, offer attractive targets for attackers since these devices are every bit as vulnerable as traditional PCs.

The most recent known attack for the Android platform is a virus called GG Tracker, which conned users by impersonating the Android Market. The most disconcerting aspect of GG Tracker is that users aren’t even aware that their data has been compromised. The virus spreads through in-app ads that, when clicked, takes users to an impostor Android Market website. Users are then urged to download an app that, upon launch, enrolls them into sketchy paid SMS services. The result? The poor user actually pays a premium for being pummeled with text spam.

As for iOS, it’s universally acknowledged that its closed eco-system makes the development and spread of viruses a tougher proposition (jailbreaking notwithstanding), but that could be changing. What’s not in the white paper is that both Stonesoft and MacAfee have predicted that iOS’ popularity could attract more malware attempts to the platform in the future.

So how do you protect yourself? Well, according to security experts, a little common sense goes a long way:

  • Password-lock your phone, and set it to auto-wipe after a set number of failed attempts
  • Keep confidential or private data off the phone
  • Only download apps from trusted sources or the official app market. (Viruses have tended to come from Russia or the Far East, at least so far.)
  • Note the permissions an app is asking for. (Why would a game or traffic app need to access your contacts or messaging?)
  • Update your system software. As vulnerabilities are discovered, the patches for them get included in software updates.
  • Keep watch over your battery levels. If they take a huge dive when you’re not using the phone, say overnight, it indicates that there’s some sort of activity (downloading? uploading?) taking place during that time.

These measures can help, but it’s tough to lock down a smartphone completely. For example, these wouldn’t have protected against GG Tracker, since it cons people into thinking they’re in the Android Market. Mobile security services, like Lookout, claim to be able to stop threats like this in their tracks, but regardless, it’s important to stay vigilant.

“What you can do is look at the list of running programs on your Android phone and make sure you know what they all are,” says Sian John. “If there’s anything you don’t know about, get rid of it.”

Are you concerned about smartphone malware? Let us know if you’ve ever gotten a virus or trojan horse on your phone, or if you have any other security tips to add to the list.

[via ElectricPig, The Lookout blog, source Symantec]