The long-awaited Verizon iPhone will be available in February, and scores of new smartphone converts will finally be able to check their e-mail while brushing their teeth, play Plants vs. Zombies while chewing their morning muffins and carry out bank transactions while walking to work.
Its versatility is what makes the iPhone so convenient – it can store several gigabytes' worth of personal information and allows its users to download free fun apps, mostly made by third-party developers, with just a few finger taps.
But that same versatility makes smartphones such as the iPhone vulnerable to malicious software, phishing scams and personal data theft from downloadable applications that access sensitive information stored on the device.
The Verizon iPhone will have a few features that the AT&T model lacks, including CDMA network compatibility, improved antenna features and a Wi-Fi hotspot generator. But will the new iPhone be any more secure?
To some extent, it’s too soon to say. Security researchers will have to wait until the iPhone is released before they can pry into its innards and carry out an exhaustive review of the instrument. But first indications hint that the Verizon iPhone won’t be too different from the iPhone 4.
“[I]t seems like they’re nearly identical,” said Kevin Mahaffey, chief technical officer at San Francisco-based Lookout Mobile Security, which makes security software for Android, BlackBerry and Windows Mobile smartphones.
The one major difference on the Verizon device is the Wi-Fi hotspot generator. But from the data he's seen, Mahaffey believes the iPhone hotspot seems as secure as conventional Wi-Fi hotspots.
That security on the iPhone in its Verizon version has not been enhanced is not a surprise to Sascha Segan, lead analyst at PCMag Mobile in New York.
“Apple wants to have one platform, independent of the network it’s on,” said Segan. “Apple’s goal is going to be homogeneity,”
Where apps are concerned, the iPhone works on a “curated” model. All the apps available in the Apple App Store are vetted by an in-house team of experts before they’re made available to the public. So to some degree, there's already a minimum level of security expected of all downloadable applications.
Randy Gross, chief information officer for the computer-industry trade group CompTIA, said that ultimately the responsibility for securing information falls to the smartphone user.
Gross recommends that new users educate themselves about easy ways to keep their devices secure, such as backing up information on multiple devices, enabling keypad locks and learning how to remotely wipe data off their smartphones in case they’re stolen or lost.
To Anand Raghunathan, a mobile-security researcher and professor of electrical engineering and computer science at Purdue University in Indiana, the issue is a tricky one.
He thinks that the buck doesn't stop with the users. Instead, said Raghunathan, network providers, first- and third-party software developers and smartphone makers – for some phones, five or six companies may be involved -- all ought to share responsibility for security.
Lookout Mobile Security’s Mahaffey agrees.
“There’s no silver bullet,” he says, adding that all parties need to take proactive approaches toward keeping personal data private.
While third-party developers such as Lookout have developed security apps for Verizon smartphones running the Android and Blackberry platforms, no such independent security software exists for the AT&T iPhone.
So far, it seems that the Verizon iPhone won’t be any different.
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