Smartphones have revolutionized the way we communicate. With a mini computer in our pocket, we can surf the web, check social media, consult Google Maps, run fitness apps – in many ways it’s hard to imagine life before these devices came along. However, people haven’t changed as fast as technology, and that’s especially true where smartphone security is concerned. While smartphone users are quick to learn new tricks for their OS and get the latest apps, they are less aware of security risks associated with smartphone use.
For instance, unprotected smartphones are extremely vulnerable to data leakage and phishing, putting your personal details at risk. They also tend to use Wi-Fi networks, which are often incredibly easy to hack. So it makes sense to take steps to secure your smartphone. But if you aren’t security aware, how can you go about doing so?
With that in mind, here are our top tips for smartphone security. Keep these ideas in mind, and you’ll be able to surf on your phone as much as you like without suffering identity theft or fraud.
1. Update to a fingerprint or facial scanner
Smartphone security issues are nothing new, and major manufacturers like Samsung and Apple have long been aware of them. That’s why they have started to move from traditional passwords to systems like facial recognition. For instance, the latest models of iPhones feature Face ID which capitalizes on the phone’s advanced cameras to identify the owner with precision.
According to Apple, the probability of a stranger picking up your iPhone and randomly managing to fool Face ID is 1:1,000,000 – compared to a much more modest (but still pretty secure) 1:50,000 for the fingerprint-based Touch ID used by older iPhones. And if security is a priority, those odds could be all the argument you need to plan an upgrade.
2. Keep your smartphone’s software patched and up to date
Sometimes, hackers succeed by exploiting weaknesses in the software that powers smartphones. As soon as a new Android version is made available, you can be sure that hackers are working it over, looking for vulnerabilities, which is a good reason to agree to patches when they are released.
However, not all smartphone manufacturers have a good record when it comes to patches. According to Security Research Labs in Germany, a host of major Android phone makers actually fail to update their software despite making users think they are downloading a patch.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the best performers where patching is concerned tend to be big names like Apple, Samsung and Sony, though Huawei and LG do fairly well. But cheaper phone makers like ZTE and TCL have a very ‘patchy’ record when it comes to updates.
3. Stick to reputable app stores
App stores are one of the most common sources of smartphone malware, so be very wary when using third party app stores. While their prices may undercut reputable stores, there’s a much higher chance of their apps being encoded with malware which can cause real damage to your smartphone OS.
For example, Flash Keyboard was once an app with 50 million global installs. It seemed to be perfectly legitimate, allowing users to change their standard Android keyboard layout to something more personalized. But behind the scenes, the app was tracking users’ activity closely, reading SMS texts and even having the ability to take photos.
If you need to download apps securely, the iTunes Store should be reliable, but there have been questions about Google Play’s vulnerability to malware. In response, researchers from Yale University have set up their own secure app store called F-Droid, which may well be worth a look.
4. Learn about how to manage your permissions
Even reputable apps can sometimes overreach and start gathering information from your smartphone that you’d rather keep hidden. When that happens, you can usually micro-manage your privacy settings via your phone’s permissions – and it’s vital that you know how to do so.
In Android phones, the place to look is the “Apps and Notification” tab, followed by “See all Apps”. This will bring up a list of the apps installed on your phone. Each one of them will have specific permissions settings, and you may be surprised by what kind of information they are able to access.
We’ve mentioned Flash Keyboard already, but many of the worst offenders are actually games, which you wouldn’t necessarily associate with data harvesting. As a rule, just say no when games request permission to use your phone’s camera or microphone. If you don’t apps could soon be recording everything you say on your phone – not a desirable situation.
5. Become a password master
If you aren’t lucky enough to have Face ID or a fingerprint scanner, you absolutely need to sharpen up your password game. It isn’t always easy to pick strong passwords across all of your devices, but it’s essential if you want your mobile to be as secure as possible.
A good way to tighten up your password security is by downloading a password manager. Android apps like 1password or LastPass will help you find strong passwords for your phone login and specific app logins, so you won’t have to rely on familiar passwords that are easy to crack.
6. Install a VPN for smartphone devices
So far, we’ve mainly discussed ways to secure your mobile phone against physical thieves and malware. But what about phishers and hackers seeking to hijack your device? In these cases, strong passwords, security patches and Face ID will be no help. To keep hardened cyber-criminals at bay, you’ll need a VPN for smartphone protection.
When you use unsecured wi-fi networks (and let’s face it, most of us do from time to time), you’re a sitting duck for hackers. And when hackers get into your phone, they may be able to transfer its entire contents without you knowing a thing.
With a VPN installed, these kind of attacks are much harder to mount. If your traffic is properly encrypted, it’s harder to “sniff” the keys needed to access your device on wi-fi networks. In fact, it’s pretty much impossible. So for anyone using unsecured wi-fi with their phone, having a VPN is a no-brainer. If you own Android, check out our list of best VPNs for Android in 2020.
Even with the best VPN, great passwords and savvy regarding app downloads, no smartphone is ever 100% secure. But if we are cautious and foreground security whenever we use our phones, we can drastically minimize the risks. It’s up to us whether we do, but as hackers become more sophisticated, why take risks with your personal data?