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Smartphones Present Growing Security Problems on Campus, Report Says

As technology advances, so do the threats posed to its users and their devices. One growing area of concern for colleges, highlighted in a report released today by the Georgia Tech Information Security Center and the Georgia Tech Research Institute, is the increasing number of attacks on smartphones and their mobile Web browsers.

Smartphones’ small screen size and abundance of loosely monitored applications make them particularly vulnerable, says Mustaque Ahamad, co-author of the report, Emerging Cyber Threats.

“The resources we have on these devices are different from what you have on your desktop or laptop,” says Mr. Ahamad, who is the director of the Georgia Tech Information Security Center.

Small screens are a problem because they lead to reckless Web browsing. To free up screen space, the URL bar often disappears after the page loads, leaving the user unable to see the Web address after clicking a link. This makes it easier for a user to mistakenly land on a page containing viruses or other malware, including apps that can swipe user information.

Young people, particularly college students, Mr. Ahamad said, are at the forefront of smartphone users, possibly making them more susceptible to these threats. Because they are often more familiar with the devices, they may feel more comfortable than adults when taking risks with downloading apps and using the browser, he added.

This problem will become even more critical over the next few years as smartphone use increases.  Mobile Internet usage is expected to outpace desktop Internet usage by 2014, according to the report.

“The sense is that smartphones are becoming more powerful,” Mr. Ahamad said. “They are really computers now, not phones.”

In addition to smartphone vulnerabilities, the report noted two other emerging threats aimed at capturing and exploiting user data from any kind of computer. These were search poisoning, or using search-engine optimization to make malicious links appear higher in a search, and the use of stolen cyber data for marketing. Botnets, which are networks of computers enslaved to one remote computer that generally promotes malware, are also becoming more sophisticated as users continue to share more personal information over social-media networks, making it easier to capture this data and sell it to the highest bidder.

Bo Rotoloni, the director of the Cyber Technology and Information Security Laboratory at Georgia Tech and another author of the report, said that we can no longer assume our data is protected by the network security systems.

“Our best defense on the growing cyber war front,” Mr. Rotoloni said, “is found in cooperative education and awareness, best-of-breed tools and robust policy developed collaboratively by industry, academia, and government.”

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