HOW SECURE IS YOUR SMARTPHONE? By Gilbert Reagan Osoo

We all love to flaunt our mobile devices, especially if they’re the latest in the market. But the question of how secure our smartphones are is least asked and if asked, it is only by a select few.

As per www.privacyrights.org, a smartphone is a small, electronic, handheld device that has both the features of a mobile phone and a computer. Kenyans normally refer to them as android, mainly due to the dominance of Google’s Android operating system in the smartphones market.

Other smartphone platforms include Apple’s iOS, Blackberry OS and Windows mobile platform. Irrespective of company, the underlying technologies use the same principles. Primarily used for communication, phones became ‘smart’ when their use surpassed the communication role. Nowadays we use phones for transactions (Mpesa, Airtel Money, and Orange Money), receive and send emails, take photos/video, access multimedia content on the web and among other uses.

With the increasing role smartphones are carrying out in our lives, we have become inseparable from them. Many Kenyans are however oblivious of the privacy threat smartphones pose. The following are some of the implications smartphones pose to your privacy and some tips to protecting it.

  1. What is your smartphone capable of revealing about you?

It is prudent to assume that any information stored in your smartphone can be remotely accessed and used by persons other than you. Service providers (Safaricom, Airtel, Orange etc.) continually collect information of; Your incoming and outgoing calls (Including audio and duration of the call), incoming and outgoing text messages and your location.

Email and web history is also recorded each time you access the web, not only by your service provider but also by cookies, which are small tracking files stored on your smartphone. Used by a website to track your use of their website and other websites you visit.

With the advent of Mpesa and other money transfer services, that allow you to access your bank accounts via your mobile phone, your financial details are not anonymous either.

  1. What other information can your smartphone can collect?

All smartphones come enabled with GPS (Global Positioning System) or GPRS (General Packet Radio Service). All the above enable geo-tagging of pictures, which is the storing of the location of where a picture/video is taken, along with other data like time and date. Uploading a picture to social media sites also uploads the metadata that was added to the photo/video on its creation.

According to a survey carried out by Scott Thurm and Yukari Iwatawani, research journalists attached to the Wall Street Journal (www.wsj.com) that studied 101 popular smartphone “apps”, many of which were iOS and Android based.  Showed that 56 of the apps transmitted the phone’s unique ID (IMEI serial number) to other companies without the user’s awareness or consent.

“These phones just can’t keep secrets. They are sharing this personal data widely and regularly,” said Thurm.

Information is sent to advertising companies, which use it to profile consumers so as to try and predict their reaction to marketing and advertisement strategies. Pandora, a popular Music app, used by both android and apple users, sent age, gender, location and other individual identifiers to various advertisement networks.

“We have created strong privacy protections for our customers, especially regarding location-based data,” says Apple Spokesman Tom Neumayr.

“Privacy and trust are important,” he added.

The journal found out that the various privacy statements outlined by the two biggest smartphone companies Apple and Google, can be skirted. This they proved by analyzing an app, Pumpkin, that was then proven to send its user’s location to advertisement networks.

Apple Inc. declines to comment whether the app violates its privacy rules.

“In the world of mobile, there is no anonymity,” says Michael Becker, of the Mobile Marketing Association, based in the U.S.

Kenya is yet to set stringent privacy laws with regard to smartphones, although the deployment of digital certificates by the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology is a start towards curbing cybercrime and privacy infringement.

F-Secure, a world leader in spyware technology, has developed ‘Freedome’, an online privacy solution that not only makes phones invincible, but untraceable and anonymous. Some of its features include; masking a phone’s IP address, allowing anonymous web surfing and creating secure encrypted connections, making data unreadable.

Other privacy solutions are also available on www.fsecure.com and www.safeandsavvy.com

Next time you shop for a smartphone, enquire its privacy features apart from its price.

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