The Cost of Living in a Mobile World

Jul 10, 2015

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Snapchat, GroupMe, Gmail — there is nothing phones don’t contain.  Apps have simplified some of the most taxing and time-consuming processes. With a touch of the screen people can deposit checks, send texts in seconds, tweet to the world, travel through Spain, and buy a new pair of shoes. And in exchange for this quick automation, all people have to do is leave small traces of themselves everywhere they click.

Android user Michele Gonzalez says she mostly uses her phone for everything.

“I have the usual apps: Facebook, and Pinterest, I have an app for The Daily Horoscope. I have a lot of apps, I don’t even know what’s on my phone.”  

With the demand for apps increasing daily, developers are looking to create the next best innovation at a faster pace. Every year some of the brightest tech minds come together to participate in Syracuse’s Hack Upstate. During this weekend hackathon programmers design apps within 24 hours and Terakeet software engineer Tom Hart took the cake — or in his case, the pie — this spring.

“My project was called “Slices”, and the idea was to solve the problem of a large group of people trying to agree on pizza toppings. . . . The core idea was an app that you could send an address to all of the people at your event and they would input what all their preferences were for toppings, what they liked, what they didn’t like, how many slices they wanted; and then once all of that was input, the system would crunch it all together and come up with what it figured was the most optimal pizza order.”

But not every app has good intentions like Hart’s “Slices”. Hackers are now hiding behind the disguise of popular apps, promising people the same experience at a discounted price. This commonly used technique is known as “trojanizing”. Once consumers go off-market to download these apps the risk of acquiring malware heightens. When that app lets a hacker into your phone, they now have access to your text messages, phones calls, pictures — everything.  

However, hackers aren’t really interested in the texts you sent your best friend last night. They are looking to make some quick money at your expense. Hackers will break into your banking accounts and even steal your login information to sell on the black market. In a report for NBC senior security advisor at Sophos, Chester Wisniewski, told The Today Show that social media usernames and passwords sell for up to ten dollars on the black market because scammers want trusted places to distribute shady links.

Ways Hackers Can Steal Passwords According to HYPERSECU

  1. Mass theft
  2. WiFi traffic monitoring attacks
  3. Phishing attacks type 1: tab nabbing
  4. Phishing attacks type 2: key logger attacks
  5. Brute force attacks

A 2012 study conducted by North Carolina State researchers found 85 percent of malware discovered on android phones comes from repackaged apps. With Google opening the Android platform to amateur developers for the price of 25 dollars, cybercriminals have taken this openness as an invitation to attack.

Although Hart does not specialize in app development, he does in their use and safety. He says the real problem isn’t just hacking, but stored data in general. As long as data is stored anywhere there should always be a concern.

“Really, any data that is stored is insecure. And anything we put online is going to get stored somewhere. I think it’s really more that we as internet users sort of have to make our peace, and then try to draw the line as far as what we want to share personally.”

Hacking Culture Bootcamp at Waag Society
Credit Sebastiaan ter Burg / https://www.flickr.com/photos/ter-burg/17315216959/in/photolist-so61Kr

Like Hart, Hack Upstate co-founder Mitch Patterson believes that as long as there is information out there nothing is safe. The reason it is so easy for people to hack nowadays is because data isn’t just stored on devices anymore, it is stored on the cloud or on a server in a different location. For instance, with Apple’s iCloud all you need is an email address linked to an account and basic information like a birthday or nickname which can all be found through an online search. As long as there are people innovating new technology, those trying to get into those systems will innovate as well.  

“Computer programmers who want to use their skills for evil purposes, if they want to get your information they will if you put it out there. Nothing’s secure. The federal government was hacked and they didn’t realize it for a year later, shows you how much your information is never going to be safe.”

"Marc Andreessen is quoted saying, 'Software is eating the world.' And right now we're truly starting to see amazing innovation, especially because software development is becoming easier and cheaper."

With technology making it so easy for anyone to access information, computer programmers aren’t the only ones people should be concerned about when it comes to hacking. Nowadays anyone can develop software and anyone can learn how to hack. A professor of Computer Science at Syracuse University Kevin Du says that while technology has made it so anyone can develop an app not many people understand security.

“People don’t have security training, so they don’t know a good way, a safe way to write a program. So a lot of apps out there actually vulnerable. People can be attacked if you use those apps to store some of your important information, and you could be in danger.”

Abstract picture of a computer virus
Credit Yuri Samoilov / https://www.flickr.com/photos/110751683@N02/15462325023/in/photolist-pymswK

  

With recent hacking incidents many are wondering if app development and downloading will see a decline. Patterson however is confident there is nothing to worry about. “I think as long as new apps come out and new opportunities present themselves and more automation comes about. . . I’m not seeing any downturn in people downloading new apps.”

Rather than shy away from advancements in development Patterson encourages people to embrace all that technology makes and can make possible, like cloud computing and virtual reality.

“It’s fascinating to just see innovations where, if I go to a restaurant now I don’t have a waiter and I just order from my table on an iPad. Or the fact that I can book an entire vacation, get transportation from the airport, order my food and everything without talking to anyone is pretty fascinating.”

Gonzalez completely agrees with Patterson, saying she will not stop using apps so it is the developers’ duty to make sure the apps are safe.

“I think they [people] will become more cautious and they’ll expect more from the people developing the apps. I don’t think there’s any turning back now. . . . I’m not going to stop using apps. They need to fix the apps so they’re not that easy to hack.”

Social media, entertainment and apps as a whole have opened up with the increasing developments in software, and while there is a lot to look forward to there is also a lot to be cautious of. There is no way to prevent a potential cyber attack, but Du explains that by learning about potential attacks people can better identify when they are happening. He suggests limiting the data you store on your phone and never downloading apps outside of the market place.

“Don’t install a lot of software that you don’t need — keep that to a minimum. Sometimes you may like something but you really have to ask yourself, ‘Do I do that?’”

It’s not easy navigating through a mobile world. Everyone’s information is out there for the taking, and no one is safe because of it. But as long as you understand the potential dangers lurking beneath each click, you’ll be better protected.