April 09, 2012
Mobile payments malware: Assault and low battery
According to Dr. Markus Jakobsson, principal scientist at PayPal, malware is moving to the mobile channel as mobile handsets replace PCs. Criminals are businessmen and subsequently go for market size in their exploits. Within a year, he says we will see more handsets than PCs, and we can also expect to see more mobile abuse trends as a result. An interview of Markus on YouTube provides some startling facts and general insights on mobile security challenges and trends.
I first wrote about the emerging threat of malware migrating from PCs to the mobile channel in a July 2010 post titled "The confluence of payments, social networks, and malware: Elements of a perfect storm?" As Portals and Rails readers well know, mobile banking and payments and accessing payments via social networking were just beginning to take off. The post noted that the rapid pace of mobile application innovation and deployment creates vulnerabilities in payment systems accessed via mobile devices. Markus's interview reveals why malware-related intrusions are expected to become more commonplace in the mobile channel and offers some thoughts on a new paradigm for thinking about mobile security.
Mobile handset is a social device as well as a computer
This is the big issue. While numerous consumer behavioral surveys report that consumers are concerned about privacy and security, they treat the handset as a social device to interact quickly with websites, businesses, and other people. In short, consumers trust their mobile devices and value the ability to access social media. As a result, they often fail to adopt available safeguards such as password locks. Jakobsson says that people tend to dislike passwords because they are slow to enter and it's easy to make a fat-finger error. As a result, they opt to operate without cumbersome passwords. Jakobsson asserts that we need a new paradigm to encourage safe authentication going forward.
The problem with virus protection for mobile phones
Consumers don't think of their handsets as computers, but they actually are computers, except that they don't have equivalent battery resources. This means that mobile handsets lack the capacity to run the most basic anti-malware software. Antivirus software works by constantly scanning for malware intrusion. Jakobsson says this is fine if you have only a few instances of malware, but frequent incidents require more frequent scanning, which drains the battery. This is going to be a problem for mobile devices, a problem that to date has not received much recognition.
The root cause: Spoofing and spam
Some problems are beginning to arise with fraudulent apps that divert the user to an unintended website. Spoofing, the practice of sending forged e-mails or directing users to malicious websites, is a critical risk that is hard to manage. According to Key Findings of the 2010 Email MAAWG Security Awareness and Usage Survey, consumers admit to risky behaviors online, with four out of ten admitting to opening an e-mail they suspected was spam. The Messaging Anti-Abuse Working Group (or MAAWG) also reported that younger users are more likely than older users to open suspicious e-mails and click on links.
Mobile ecosystem will require different assumptions about security
As e-commerce increasingly moves to the mobile channel, handsets and networks will require new protections to protect data used for identity and payments. As consumers share more information via their handsets in social media and broadcast their geolocations to merchants, the mobile channel will become more vulnerable to criminal activity. Malware exposure will occur cross platform through gaming and social applications that are not suitably policed. While mobile malware circulation is not yet prevalent, the projected growth of mobile platforms versus traditional computers will make mobile an attractive target for organized crime. Industry stakeholders should consider the prospective risks of malware in discussions on mobile payments security.
By Cynthia Merritt, assistant director of the Retail Payments Risk Forum
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