Addressing the Mobile Malware Threat With Zero-Trust

With 5.3 billion people possessing a mobile phone, it is predictable that criminals would be attracted to what’s contained on these devices. And what about all that automation coming to our cars? How vulnerable are they?

The answer is very vulnerable. New technologies bring new waves of innovation and exciting products to the market. They also create vulnerabilities that engineers may have never thought about. For example, the use of Bluetooth and Wi-Fi in automobiles—along with more driver-assist features in vehicles—makes them targets for cybercriminals. Meanwhile, mobile banking technology allows us to access our accounts anywhere we go, but it also opens up the opportunity for a criminal to infiltrate our sensitive data with malware or through phishing schemes.

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The bandits gain access to our devices by targeting the software that provides access to the internet. With an average of 40 apps downloaded on each mobile phone, the opportunity for cybercriminals to capture valuable data and credentials is right there in the palm of your hand. The habits of users have only made the threat far greater than it was just a few years ago.

Suddenly, the world is using phones to complete credit-card purchases, send and receive money and access password-protected accounts. Plus, our cars are more connected than ever to third-party apps and subscriptions. All of that activity—plus what happens on tablets and wearables—is rich ground for thieves. Not surprisingly, their activity has also dramatically increased. According to one report, Verizon researchers have found that mobile attack severity levels are at all-time highs as large corporations report a 33% year-over-year jump in digital security attacks.

You’ve likely received text messages from numbers you don’t know containing dubious-looking links that—if you’re tech savvy—you would never risk clicking. You may have even installed an app that helps to filter out numbers that other consumers have reported as suspicious for placing scam or nuisance calls.

But mobile device fraud is far more complex than annoying, easy-to-detect phishing schemes. Banking trojans are malware specifically designed to mimic a bank account to steal the login credentials of its owner. Using a RAT, or remote administration tool, is a favorite tactic of hackers. A RAT is often downloaded without the knowledge of the device owner and can provide the cyberthief with full access to your device and other devices to which it is connected. Key fob hacking is a frightening vulnerability for car owners.

Mitigating the mobile malware threat has been difficult for manufacturers. That’s partly due to how often we use our devices and how much potentially dangerous code we download onto them via apps. The pandemic has fueled an increase in our mobile activities and remote work has caused businesses to adopt a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policy that permits employees to use their personal computer products to access work networks.

But the uptick in mobile-device usage is only one aspect of the cybersecurity predicament. There are also limitations in the current device architecture that must be overcome. Far more trust is needed before any mobile device user can feel completely safe from attack. To acquire that assurance, it has increasingly become apparent that we can gain the most trust in our digital communications by, ironically, deploying a zero-trust environment.

Zero-trust with a mobile device has the same features as zero-trust design for a desktop computer. Arguably, zero-trust is far more important for mobile devices than desktop computers because of the number of apps that we download on our phones and tablets compared to our PCs and the amount of time we spend using them on our phones.

The most notable feature of zero-trust is its ability to constantly verify and re-verify each user. With zero-trust enabled on your mobile device, those apps you access are under constant surveillance by the AI-enabled hardware.

As you play your favorite games or explore an educational app, your identity is validated based on your past behavior and your location. AI-enabled computer chips, which can create encrypted keys in massive volume, offer great hope to the cybersecurity sector because they can support zero-trust. Those encrypted keys allow devices to perform their repetitive validation process. An ideal AI chip also builds from the ground up within a device, bringing stability and security to the control and management plane of hardware infrastructures.

Should the AI-enabled chip in your device pick up on an anomalous action—such as a download of a questionable app or activity that seems to be taking place far away from your last physical location—then an attacker may have been detected and action will be taken. That action can include asking you to validate your credentials or notifying a system administrator of an attempt to access work files that seems unusual. Mitigation steps can immediately be taken, which is a significant improvement from most current protocols, where malware is detected long after damage has been done.

There are other solutions beyond hardware that an enterprise or organization can use to help lower the chances of getting attacked. These include:

  • Installing a mobile antivirus app
  • Improving unified endpoint management (UEM) to lower the threat level of a network through automation and digital surveillance
  • Adopting multifactor authentication across operations, including for BYOD policies
  • Better defining the rules for employees who do follow or prefer a BYOD lifestyle.

All of those actions can certainly help to reduce the likelihood of a debilitating mobile device attack. But none of them on their own, or even combined together, will be as successful in addressing the risk to the attack surface as AI-powered zero-trust hardware.

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Gopi Sirineni

Gopi Sirineni is a Silicon Valley veteran with over 25 years of experience in the semiconductor, software and systems industries. As a senior executive, Gopi has demonstrated exceptional skill at building highly efficient, cost-effective organizations, managing rapidly changing environments and bringing industry-changing technologies to market.

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