x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Half of UAE smartphones are hacked

Data published by cyber security firm Symantec found a further 56 per cent of users in the UAE grossly underestimate the risks of malware being installed on their handsets.

Shoppers at BurJuman Mall in Dubai, browse the internet on their mobile devices – a very popular pastime – but many users fail to realise that smart devices are just as vulnerable to cybercrime as computers at home or in the office. Antonie Robertson / The National
Shoppers at BurJuman Mall in Dubai, browse the internet on their mobile devices – a very popular pastime – but many users fail to realise that smart devices are just as vulnerable to cybercrime as computers at home or in the office. Antonie Robertson / The National

DUBAI // As many as half of the UAE’s smartphone users have been victims of some form of cybercrime in the last year, according to computer security experts.

In addition, a further 56 per cent of users grossly underestimate the risks of malware being installed on their handsets.

The data, published in the Norton Report, an annual cyber security study carried out by Symantec, follows warnings from analysts over a rise in corporate espionage and hacking targeted at smartphones.

“If this was a test, mobile consumers in the UAE would be failing,” said Tamim Taufiq, a spokesman for Symantec in the region.

“While consumers are protecting their computers, there is a general lack of awareness to safeguard their smartphones and tablets. It’s as if they have alarm systems for their homes, but they’re leaving their cars unlocked with the windows wide open.”

The survey was carried out across 24 countries on 13,000 users.

It claimed that of particular concern to businesses was that people were using the same smartphone for both business and leisure.

“Today’s cybercriminals are using more sophisticated attacks, such as ransomware and spear phishing, that yield them more money per attack than ever before,” said Mr Taufiq.

“With the findings from the Norton Report that 55 per cent of consumers in the UAE use their personal mobile device for both work and play, this creates entirely new security risks for enterprises as cybercriminals have the potential to access even more valuable information.”

David Michaux, director of Dubai cyber security firm Whispering Bell, said the company had been contacted by several firms concerned about the issue, since infected phones could effectively transmit viruses over the secure wifi at a corporate office.

Part of the problem, he said, was that people think cybercrime is restricted to attacks solely on computers.

“A smartphone is just like a computer,” he said. “In fact, your phone actually contains more data than your computer.

“People understand the need for anti-virus on their laptops, but they underestimate the risk on their phones. They still consider their phone to be just a phone.”

The Norton Report claimed that 73 per cent of UAE residents use public or unsecured wifi to connect to the internet or access their emails.

“There are so many vectors for infecting a phone,” said Mr Michaux. “If you hook up to a public wifi network, like in a coffee shop or airport, you could have your phone infected there,” he said.

“You could be driving around and have bluetooth enabled, you could receive a message from someone. That message might contain a link, which you click, and then it downloads a virus or trojan on to your computer.

“We’ve seen situations where phones have been trojaned, and every text message you send or receive is then forwarded to a website.”

“We’ve seen situations where the webcam can be switched on remotely, or even that the microphone can be switched on remotely and they can listen to the conversation going on in the room.”

He said that the most lucrative goal for hackers is simply to steal your address book and sell it to spammers.

“Spam houses are paying something like US$4 per address book,” he said.

The most vulnerable platforms are Apple, which allow users to download third party content, or jail-broken iPhones, which bypass Apple’s security protocols.

The report follows a separate study by manufacturer Acer, which found that 18 per cent of the population of the GCC spend more than five hours a day on touch-enabled devices, including smartphones.

In addition, 39 per cent spend less than two hours, while 43 per cent spend two to five hours a day.

Mr Michaux said that ultimately people need to have greater awareness.

“It all comes down to caution while using the internet,” he said. “Sadly that’s the thing that’s lacking most of all.”

mcroucher@thenational.ae