Hardware vs Software Mobile Security – Which Keeps Your Device Safer?

Dror Liwer Blog

Media coverage of cybersecurity tends to focus on major companies which are victims of hacking and data theft. Consequently, there’s a lot of industry focus on enterprise security within offices and data centers i.e. security issues affecting desktop computers, servers, and physical network infrastructure.

This rather misses the fact that mobile devices (laptops, smartphones and tablets) have become the achilles heel for organizations’ cybersecurity. They are an integral part of the workplace and  used for handling business data are also intrinsically being the least secure. Executives with their busy travel schedules, often spend more time checking emails and discussing sensitive business issues using their smartphone than with their laptop or in person.

Mobile security is therefore critical, but what is the best way to secure smartphones – dedicated ‘secure phones’, or software-based solutions which run on regular smartphones?

Dedicated ‘secure phones’ are great in theory, but flawed in practice

There is a common misperception that iPhones are more secure than Android devices. This is based upon the understanding that it is not possible (without rooting) to install software outside of the heavily-curated iOS App Store, and that there is a ‘single iOS’ platform as opposed to the myriad manufacturer-customised versions of Android with inconsistent update cycles. The avalanche of apps available for Android are also considered to be a cybersecurity calamity.

Unfortunately for iPhone owners, their confidence is misplaced – a determined hacker will have no more trouble breaking into an iPhone than an Android device. The reality is that no phone in its off-the-shelf configuration can be considered sufficiently secure for confidential data or voice communication.

Dedicated secure phones are one alternative. They offer customized and locked down versions of Android, together with security-focussed hardware. The cheapest options, such as the Blackphone 2, are comparable in price to mainstream flagship phones such as the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge and iPhone 6s, though the hardware specifications and functionality are invariably low-to-mid end.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are models such as the Solarin by Sirin labs, which costs an unbelievable $14,000 for a fairly antiquated device with an out of date processor (Qualcomm Snapdragon 810) best known for its unfortunate habit of overheating! Reviewers have also noted the manufacturer’s tendency to make very bold claims about the Solarin’s security capabilities without providing the concrete detail to back them up, primarily pitching the device as a status symbol “for those where cost is not an issue”.

According to industry experts, the market growth potential for dedicated secure phones is limited. Ben Wood, analyst at CCS Insight, explained why:

In a global market where 1.5bn smartphones will be sold this year there is always going to be a ‘long tail’ opportunity to sell a very exclusive device,” he said. “However as Vertu has found, the allure of the iPhone continues to draw even the most affluent users limiting the market opportunity … There appears to be a small number of users who will pay a significant premium for a very secure smartphone — however even with encryption and other security measures there will always be digital footprint left by a user.”

Overall, there is a very limited selection of secure phones, and they tend to combine high cost with lower-end outdated hardware. Their security features can’t easily be updated without upgrading the entire phone. Additionally, certain security features, such as the Blackphone 2’s secure communications services, even require an additional subscription cost, and only offer full privacy when communicating with other users of the same product – clearly limiting its usefulness.

Software mobile security is the cheaper and more comprehensive option – if done properly

As is the case with most IT solutions with a software vs. hardware decision, software-based mobile security is the cheaper and more flexible option, letting you choose your own smartphone based upon your particular requirements and preferences. Software is also much easier and quicker to keep up to date than hardware – a vital consideration for cybersecurity.

The more familiar side of mobile security encompasses antivirus and antimalware software. These are certainly important, but unfortunately lull users into a false sense of security, as they don’t address a significant part of the mobile security puzzle.

A major, and growing risk is found in network hacking cyber attacks which trick devices into connecting to malicious WiFi and cellular networks. This lets hackers observe your transmitted data, eavesdrop on calls, and control the device. They can even change the content of your emails and SMS messages. This technique takes advantage of an inherent weakness in mobile design: devices are designed to implicitly trust the networks to which they connect. Antiviruses and anti-malware solutions will detect trojans and many forms of viruses but will not pick up hacks on the network level.

Coronet is a lightweight software solution which runs on any mobile device, and proactively screens all available wireless and cellular networks against its collaborative intelligence platform. That way, Coronet prevents devices from connecting to malicious cellular or WiFi networks, ensuring robust wireless security for you and your employees. An Enterprise Dashboard is also available, enabling  CSOs to visualise current threat levels, and configure the software across devices.