That Smartphone Isn’t Secure Just Because It’s ‘New’

Be a parent to your children’s smartphones

Key Takeaways

  • Both adults and teens have become far more dependent on their smartphones.
  • Users still have ill-conceived notions about smartphone security.
  • Following basic security hygiene will help eradicate most security gaps, suggest experts.
View from below of three children laying on a bed using smartphones.

Maskot / Getty Images

While the last couple of years has significantly altered smartphone usage patterns across the world, the increased use has brought with it alarming misapprehensions about mobile security, according to a recent survey.

The McAfee survey found that although smartphones are increasingly replacing computers as the preferred device for accessing online content, especially among younger users, the devices are often poorly protected because of the user’s misconceptions.

"One of the more alarming aspects of the survey is that almost half of parents and even more children believe a 'new' phone is more secure,” Stephen Gates, Security Evangelist at Checkmarx told Lifewire over email. “Just because it’s new does not make it any more secure.” 

False Belief

According to the survey, both parents and children rate their mobile devices as the most important gadget in their life, with 59% of the adults and 74% of teens placing it at the top of their list.

The global survey found that children in some nations rely heavily on their smartphones for online learning, especially in households where broadband comes by way of mobile, rather than a cable or fiber connection.

This would explain why although usage of smartphones for online learning is relatively low globally (23%), users in three nations reported a high rate of using mobiles for attending classes, with India at 54%, Mexico at 42%, and Brazil at 39%. 

Despite this increased usage, McAfee discovered that children's mobile devices are less protected. For instance, only 42% of children used a password to protect their mobile device, compared to 56% of parents. In the same vein, 41% of parents use a mobile antivirus, which was found on only 38% of children's smartphones. Unsurprisingly, just as few of the children (37%) put in the effort to keep their phones updated.

 "The fact that kids are more likely to get the apps they use from somewhere other than official app stores makes them very vulnerable to the risks associated with cloned or modified apps," noted George McGregor, Marketing VP, at mobile app protection experts, Approov, in an email to Lifewire.

In all, the security negligence makes the devices vulnerable to all kinds of attacks, including data and identity theft, cryptoming malware, and more, notes McAfee.

Attackers Paradise

No surprise then that more than a third of the parents reported their child was a victim of a potential cybercrime, with one in 10 parents reporting their children had experienced a financial information leak, and 15% of children saying they'd experienced an attempt to steal their online account.

"One of the more alarming aspects of the survey is that almost half of parents and even more children believe a 'new' phone is more secure.”

"Today's attackers are laser-focused on exploiting mobile apps to gain access to login credentials, personally identifiable information, and even the data of friends, of both young and mature smartphone users," observed Gates.

He shared that the Checkmarx security research team recently found that the location-sharing app Zenly had vulnerabilities that could have led to account takeover, potentially allowing attackers to gain access to a user's location, notifications, conversations, and friends' information just like the legitimate user could. Checkmarx brought these vulnerabilities to Zenly's attention, who quickly plugged the holes.

"I think we need to do a better job of teaching our children to always be on the lookout when it comes to the technology we live with today," suggested Gates.

Be Your Own Firewall

Gates believes the survey not only highlights the security faux pas but also helps demonstrate how effective basic digital security hygiene can be.

For instance, he suggests users always check the ratings and the app developer's reputation in the app stores before downloading apps. Also, using complex passwords and enabling two-factor authentication wherever it's offered will play a pivotal role in hardening users' online presence.

A parent and child using smartphones, and sharing what's on the screen.

Maskot / Getty Images

McGregor believes that while parents should obviously take a more active role and ensure basic protections are in place, the industry as a whole should also shoulder some of the burden.

"Much more can be done to improve the security of mobile apps and the devices they run on. Tools and techniques to do this are available, and app developers need to make it a priority," suggested McGregor.

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