Prior to smartphones, there was an almost universal positive attitude toward our uncomplicated, feature-deprived mobile phones. We traded in our beepers for a late 1990s Motorola Razor “dumb” flip phone and had one innocent worry: don’t lose it.
Today, it’s a whole new ballgame. The mobile ecosystem is a full-contact sport between us — the good guys — and hackers — just awful people. Mobile phones, as we now call them, are computers, and computers get hacked. Here’s why life was far simpler and safer before the smartphone entered our lives:
Flip phones didn’t get malware. A recent study shows 72% of all Android malware is adware but 28% is banking trojans, fake apps, lockers, and downloaders. These are dangerous tools that make password and identity theft easy. Newly discovered mobile malware called LeifAccess disguises itself, often by exploiting accessibility features, and extracts passwords. There’s also Cookiethief, a mobile malware, that doesn’t require the actual password to carry out exploits linked to a legitimate credential.
Stolen biometric data wasn’t a concern. There are many great stories in the media about journalists hacking iPhone Face ID with twins, or using a fake fingerprint to unlock Touch ID. In the flip phone era, we didn’t fret over our fingerprints being stolen, an event which could cripple our digital identity for life. Today with fingerprints deep into the consumer space, we’re preoccupied with whether their use for convenience or security is worth it since biometrics are irrevocable.
Flips were not considered an ‘attack surface’. For people, the use of a personal smartphone or flip phone is a choice, and it is a net +/- 1 attack surface in a world where everything that is connected is vulnerable. For businesses, smartphone ubiquity is a foregone conclusion and it cannot be ignored. Deployment of company smartphones or creation of a bring-your-own-device (BYOD) policy has produced a huge attack surface that was of no concern during the flip phone era.
Lastly, privacy, the tinfoil hat stuff (you know who you are). Back in my day, privacy was just an SAT word. Today it’s a big deal. If privacy is your “thing” then it stands to reason that flip phones are also. Whether it’s mentioning a desire to see a film to a colleague and then seeing ads for tickets on Facebook, or the idea of the government or advertisers rummaging through your business, privacy unease is just offensive. Flip phones gave us peace of mind that we lost once smartphones, and their nosy features and apps, came to market.
The flip phone era had its drawbacks. The corporate Legion of Doom — now muzzled by the National Do Not Call Registry — enrolled us in a workflow (“You’re calling a cell phone number!”). Draconian voice plans cost us a week’s wages in overages. The solution was, “Call me, but hang up after two rings.”). We also received and dialed tons of wrong numbers before number portability among carriers was the norm. But life was good, then.
I’m a strong believer that life with smartphones can be better as well. It’s just a matter of how quickly we want it and whether we’re willing to do whatever it takes to make the mobile ecosystem a safer place for the good guys.