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Threat of mobile malware isn't as bad as experts would want you to believe

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April 15, 2015

In its annual mobile breach investigations report, Verizon suggests that the threat of mobile malware for smartphones and tablets is a lot less than the providers of mobile security products would have us believe.

Contrary to several claims from companies like Lookout and a few others that provide mobile security solutions and who have for years warned us about the rapid and massive growth of mobile malware, Verizon found virtually no iOS malware for iPhones or iPads in the data it examined from Verizon mobile customers in 2014, and virtually no Android malware either.

But Verizon's report did make a few eyebrows go up in surprise, nevertheless.

“We’re seeing that some of the exploits just aren’t happening,” said Bryan Sartin, head of Verizon’s risk team in a phone call today discussing the company’s annual Breach Investigations Report.

As you might guess, Verizon’s annual report card is rarely optimistic, and this year was mostly no different-- one major finding of the report suggests that the time it takes for hackers to get into a system and siphon data is just a few minutes.

But this mobile malware finding serves as an unexpected bright spot. In a section of the report titled, “I’ve got 99 problems and mobile isn’t even 1 percent of them,” Verizon says that, although it found hundreds of thousands of malware infections for mobile devices, most of them were simply annoying adware programs. The really big mobile threats didn’t materialize.

“The reality was that, when we talk about really truly malicious code, it was really 0.03 percent of Android devices per week,” Sartin said during the press call.

“That’s almost nothing.” And the Android malware they did find far outnumbered any that targeted iOS devices.

And although Verizon’s dataset was rather limited, it involved just six months worth of data from Verizon Wireless customers and the tens of millions of devices they use to connect to the Verizon network.

The authors of the report note that their findings are nevertheless consistent with the analysis of other forensic companies like FireEye who also say that mobile devices just don’t show up in their forensic investigations.

“This report is filled with thousands of stories of data loss, as it has been for several years already, and rarely do those stories include a smartphone,” the Verizon authors allege.

Despite the fact that serious security vulnerabilities have been found in mobile devices over the years, Verizon found little evidence that attackers were actually releasing exploits to attack them.

But this also means that companies have an opportunity to stay ahead of mobile attackers if they act now to secure and monitor their devices before the mobile attacks begin happen.

However, and this is important, mobile security firm Lookout says that Verizon and other forensic security firms likely don’t have the infrastructure or sophisticated controls needed to properly detect mobile malware in the first place.

“It’s just very unsurprising that enterprises haven’t been more concerned, because targeted threats actually have the mobile security controls in place that would detect these,” said Lookout CEO John Hering.

The Federal Communications Commission has fined Verizon Wireless $3.4 million for its failure to provide subscribers with emergency phone service in 2014.

The FCC said that it had agreed to the fine with Verizon after an April 2014 service outage that left about eleven million people without phone coverage, including the 911 emergency phone service.

A detailed investigation revealed that the phone company also failed to report the service outage as quickly as it should have under FCC rules. The agency said that Verizon's service outage left 750,000 people represented by thirteen emergency call centers in nine Northern California counties, as well as six other Western U.S. states without phone access.

The six-hour outage which took place during the night of April 9, 2014, resulted in 4,300 emergency calls failing in the Western U.S. due to a failure at a Colorado call-routing center.

No deaths or serious injuries were reported during the outage, however. The fine will hardly make a dent in the returns for a company that reported $7.8 billion in profit last quarter.

Nevertheless, the FCC still believes that the fine will give operators a strong incentive to make sure phone lines are always working.

"We take seriously our obligation to ensure the nation’s 911 systems function reliably," said FCC chairman Tom Wheeler.

"We will continue to work with wireless service providers to ensure that advances in 911 technologies lead to improved communications between citizens and first responders," added Wheeler.

As part of the agreement, Verizon will also agree to put measures in place to cover future outages and better respond to future disruptions that could threaten the availability of emergency service.

Those measures include taking less time in identifying specific causes of service outages, detecting disruptions and designing measures to reduce service outages.

According to Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster, Apple is reportedly exploring new ways to enter the augmented reality (AR) technology segment.

In an investor's note released today, Munster cited conversations with industry contacts who claim that Apple has a small team exploring AR, which he believes "has the potential to be as profound a technology platform as the smartphone today."

The mobile industry analyst also said that he thinks Apple has the ability to create products that consumers would truly crave as opposed to the prototype devices available today.

So what exactly is augmented reality? And how is it different from virtual reality? Augmented reality (AR) overlays digital information onto the real world. Perhaps the best example to date is a product like Google Glass, which lets you see the world around you as it is, but also projects information onto a lens in front of your eyes.

In stark contrast, virtual reality places you into a total digital environment with no awareness of the world around you: for example, think of headsets like the Oculus Rift or Sony's Morpheus.

Augmented-reality devices are already popping up. Beyond Google Glass, other products due out this year include Sony's Smart Eyeglass Developer Edition and Microsoft's HoloLens.

However, overall consumer adoption and general acceptance of such mobile devices can be problematic, especially since users are forced to wear clunky and obtrusive glasses.

Google pulled the plug on its Glass device in January, saying the $1,500 device was years away from becoming a mass-market product.

Google also added that it has plans for a follow-on product sometime in the future, but didn't provide further details.

So just how Apple might succeed where Google has so far failed? Just as Apple designed its new Apple Watch to emphasize style over technology, the company could do the same with a wearable AR device, Munster added.

"We also believe that wearables are meant to be worn and seen, thus they need to be fashionable as well," Munster added.

"To be sure, augmented reality will require some type of technology that projects images in the user's eyesight (ultimately augmented reality may be delivered via implants). We believe that Apple has the unique ability to combine the technology of augmented reality with attractive fashion/design that users will actually want to wear," said Munster.

Though he believes Apple is looking into these possibilities with augmented reality, an actual device could be years away, nevertheless.

Right now, Apple's team is simply trying to determine how to make a wearable AR device that would be fashionably and socially acceptable.

As such, the current experiments may not even result in an actual product per se. But Apple has brought in a list of new hires from the fashion and retail world to help launch the Apple Watch and turn the company into more of a fashion brand, according to Munster.

Those include former Burberry CEO Angela Ahrendts to head retail, former Yves Saint Laurent CEO Paul Deneve as vice president of special projects, designer Marc Newson and former global marketing director for Gap Marcela Aguilar as Apple's global marketing director.

"We believe Apple's growing abilities in fashion and design could help the company develop other wearable products longer-term, particularly augmented reality focused devices," Munster said.

Apple could also adopt AR for its existing lineup of mobile devices. The company has filed several patents with the the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office that deal with augmented reality.

For example, an Apple patent application published last November called "Transparent electronic device" envisioned a way of overlaying images over real-world viewable objects.

The Next Generation Mobile Networks (NGMN) wireless carriers' forum has determined a form of concept of what 5G's future should soon look like, and set forth a plan of its ideal vision of a post-4G world.

In a nutshell, the 5G world is going to have to get moving on this real soon, although the roadmap, with contributions from luminaries such as AT&T, British Telecom, China Mobile, DoCoMo, SingTel, Verizon Wireless, Vodafone, Telstra and a few others, wants the first steps to be complete by the end of 2015.

With detailed requirements for this so-called '5G roadmap' called for by the end of this year, the paper lays out the remaining steps as being:

  • Initial system design by 2017
  • Trials in 2018
  • Standards ready by the end of 2017
  • Commercial offerings by 2020
  • That's a rather challenging timeline, considering that what wireless carriers see 5th generation networks like they're being put together a 'bit at the last minute'.

    For example, the NGMN Group has noticed that 5G is going to have to support mobile handsets, transceivers in cars and a who-knows-how-many IoT (Internet of Things) devices, so the network will have to be able to be sliced up in so many ways that each use-case gets the resources it needs.

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    As the paper notes, IoT sensor deployments could demand “several hundred thousand simultaneous active connections per square kilometre”.

    Wireless carriers also say that they'd like to replace the office LAN, calling for industry standards that can deliver “1 Gb/s to be offered simultaneously to tens of workers in the same office floor”.

    Unsurprisingly, 4G wireless spectrum efficiency is inadequate for the future, at least for now-- “In particular, the average spectrum efficiency (measured in bit/s/Hz/cell) and the cell-edge spectrum efficiency (measured in bit/s/Hz/user) should be improved”, the paper states.

    The NGMN wants 5G to be the path by which the world will get 50 MBPS just about everywhere, with capacity and network latency able to support “extreme real time communications” like the “tactile Internet”, sufficient reliability for M2M and eHealth solutions.

    Remembering that wireless carriers are already challenged by the erosion of their revenue base needs to be delivered on a technology that also enables “ultra low-cost networks”, the group says.

    “5G is expected to be flexible enough to be deployed under ultra-low cost requirements” for low-ARPU locations such as emerging markets, or low-density areas in existing markets, it suggests.

    The NGMN says “a key requirement for 5G will be that a consistent customer experience is achieved across time and service footprint” in a “5G eco-system that is truly global, free of fragmentation and open for innovations”.

    Devices will have to be multi-band and multi-mode, which will also place a premium on battery life and device efficiency, with the NGMN paper calling for three-day life for smartphones and up to 15 years for low-cost IoT devices.

    The world's also going to have to get going soon on what could be the biggest bug the industry has to swallow in delivering 5G-- spectrum allocation reform.

    Noting that there's nowhere near enough space in today's mobile spectrum to meet its 5G exhaustive list, the NGMN calls for “study technical feasibility of the ranges between 6 GHz and around 100 GHz, in particular those where primary or co-primary allocation to mobile in the ITU Radio Regulations exists already. The lower limit for the band range (above 6 GHz) should be further assessed,” it added.

    Considering how slowly political processes move and the capacity for existing spectrum users to stymie reform, it might be very challenging to find enough radio spectrum in the next five years to do everything the wireless carriers are hoping for.

    Today at the Mobile World Congress conference, BlackBerry said it will port key client platform features like its soft keyboard, Universal Search and Hub to iPhone and Android OSs.

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    Source: The Federal Communications Commission.

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