As attacks on mobile devices skyrocket, the prospect of falling victim to a hacker seems like it's no longer a question of "if" but rather "when." Because we use our phones so often — 34 times a day according to one study's estimates — we're exposing ourselves and our data exponentially far more often than we used to, giving hackers that many more chances to break in. Last week, Juniper Networks reported a 400 percent increase in attacks on Android-powered phones between June 2010 and January 2011. In a Forbes column on Sunday night, Juniper vice president Karim Toubba explained that we've created a "perfect storm for hackers" with our sloppy smartphone habits:
The risks created by portable, always-on smartphones, tablets and other mobile computing devices are extending the attack surfaces that require protection for both consumers and enterprises. … People connect to unsecured wireless hotspots and download apps with impunity, giving little thought as to whether the app provider is trustworthy. Add to that the frequency that these devices with sensitive information are lost or stolen and the need to better secure and manage these devices becomes evident.
As Toubba suggests, our addiction to a steady flow of data isn't just a problem for consumers. The backend business solutions are just as vulnerable to attacks, and a strike in the right place can affect millions of people within minutes. If his goal was to bring awareness to breadth of the risks, Toubba's timing was prescient and perhaps a little bit ironic. Early Monday morning, a glitch in some Juniper-manufactured routers working on Level3's tier one network triggered an international incident that killed the part of internet, everything from Time Warner Cable to BlackBerry's email servers, for a few minutes across North America and Europe. Tier one networks act like the internet's spine and a properly placed blow can be paralyzing. So far, it appears that the problem was nothing more than a bug in a software update, but it could've just as easily been a Stuxnet-like virus from who-knows-whom that could've crippled half of the Western world's communication infrastructure.
So how could the rise in malware on smartphones translate into a devastating attack from a computer virus? It's a lot like the movie Contagion. Because we've become constantly connected to the internet through smartphones — Toubba calls this "extending the attack surfaces" — one infected device can quickly multiply into millions of infected devices before we even notice there's a problem.