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Data Doctors: Malicous mobile apps

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Posted: Thursday, September 30, 2010 3:30 pm

Q: A techie friend suggested that iPhone apps were safer than Android apps because Apple is so controlling of who can offer apps to iPhone users. Is this true? - Margaret

A: It's estimated that 50 billion apps per year will downloaded by 2012 to more than 160 million smartphones, which is attractive to both commercial firms and malicious software developers.

The explosion of mobile applications is happening so fast that issues of safety and security seem to be taking a back seat.

A big contributor to this dearth of focus on security is confusion and lack of understanding of just what exposure a mobile app can be to private information.

Your smartphone has a lot of very valuable data to marketers and those with malicious intent; location, call history, text messages, e-mail, contacts, browsing history, your phone number as well as your photos and what you have downloaded.

Once an application is loaded on your smartphone, it can do whatever the programmer has instructed it to do, with or without your ongoing permission.

With these two platforms (Google's Android and Apple's IOS), there are some significant differences in how apps are distributed and what users are told when they install the apps.

Google's Android platform is a more open system for app developers, so users don't have to download all their apps from the Android Marketplace (iPhone users must download apps from Apple's App store unless they circumvent the security; a.k.a. jailbreak the phone).

The Android's openness can be a benefit and a drawback depending upon how conscientious the user is when it comes to downloading apps.

The benefit in openness is that over time, more developers are apt to build apps for the Android platform because they know that they can get it to market without getting Google's approval, which can lower the overall costs & eliminates the approval uncertainty.

Right now, there are several hundred thousand apps for the iPhone and less than 100,000 for Android phones, but this gap is closing quickly.

The ratio of free vs. pay apps for Android phones is 64% while only 28% of iPhone apps are free (keep in mind that malicious apps are more likely to be free to encourage more downloads).

By design, Android apps alert the user during the install on what will be accessed on their phone by using the app and must get the user's approval.

The problem with this ‘disclosure' process is that many users either don't pay attention or don't understand what is being disclosed during the install in their haste to use the app.

Think like a hacker; one platform requires the submission for approval of every application (iPhone) and the other simply requires that you tell the user in a somewhat technical manner, what will happen when the app is installed (Android) but no one is confirming this.

The reality as of this writing is that neither platform has experienced massive exposure to malicious applications, but you can be assured that this will change in the future.

iPhone users that choose to ‘jailbreak' their phones are essentially opening themselves to ‘un-vetted' apps just like Android users, but they don't get the disclosure step, so be forewarned.

In my opinion, none of this should be the deciding factor on which platform to use as they are both wonderful systems that will continue to evolve with the changing environment.

Just use the same rules as you should with your home computer; if you don't need it, don't install it and if you aren't sure of the source, steer clear!

Hosts of the award-winning "Computer Corner" radio show (http://www.datadoctors.com/radio" href= "http://biz.datadoctors.com/exchweb/bin/redir.asp?URL=http://www.datadoctors.com/radio" target="_blank">www.datadoctors.com/radio)

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Ken Colburn
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  • E-mail: evtrib@datadoctors.com
  • Ken Colburn is president of Data Doctors Computer Services and host of the Data Doctors Radio Program, noon Saturdays on KTAR 92.3 FM or at www.datadoctors.com/radio
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