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A phone from makers of Pegasus spyware & other ways to protect your phone from hacking

There is no method that can fully guarantee that your phone will never be attacked by malware, but there are ways to strengthen your device protections.

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New Delhi: With the Pegasus spyware expose ruling headlines, one question on almost everyone’s mind is: How do I protect my devices from malicious software, or malware, that can steal my passwords and other sensitive information? 

There are some easy ways to do it. This includes maintaining basic digital hygiene — only downloading apps you need, two-factor authentication, and strong passwords, besides never clicking on strange links, especially if they are sent by a stranger.

This said, there is no method that can fully guarantee that your phone will never be attacked by malware, which often exploits security loopholes in a device or app to reach their target. 

For example, when Pegasus, a sophisticated spyware that can collect vast amounts of information about the victim without them finding out, was found to have infected WhatsApp users in 2019, it was reportedly installed through missed calls made through the app — the targeted phones were allegedly compromised even if the users didn’t answer the calls.

However, there are some lesser known ways that can warn and protect you against the digital threats floating around cyberspace.

Also Read: Pegasus: Global media calls out NSO, seeks robust oversight of ‘unrestrained’ spyware industry

A secure phone developed by NSO co-founders

Pegasus was developed by an Israeli firm named NSO Group, whose founders include businessmen Omri Lavie and Shalev Hulio.

Lavie and Hulio also helped cofound a company named Kaymera Technologies that makes “secured mobile phones, based on selected high-end mobile devices (including Google’s Pixel)”. Kaymera makes secure phones by applying its own version of the Android operating system (OS) along with “proprietary security architecture” that can take care of “all” threats to your mobile phone.

As a 2014 press release from Kaymera says, “the founders of an Israeli startup that sells phone hacking technology to governments realised they had not one business, but two”.

Kaymera has a blog that explains how spyware like Pegasus is used in “political espionage” leading to election interference. The blog then describes how “political aspirants” can use Kaymera services to secure themselves.

Kaymera offers an “encrypted phone” on its website. The firm does not make the phone, but only installs a unique version of the Android OS on certain devices. For instance, the Kaymera website shows it sells a Google Pixel phone working with the Kaymera OS.

The operating software encrypts all the data, including messages, stored on the phone, as well as calls. It is believed to prevent attempts to penetrate a device made via the telecom operator network, a website, or WiFi.

The Kaymera OS sends a notification when it detects a threat, asking users to disconnect from an unsafe WiFi connection, or delete a malicious app. It claims to prevent your location from being tracked as well. 

The OS also offers a “chameleon mode”, where there are two versions of your data, making it harder for an attacker to access it.

There is no price specified for the phone — the firm’s website has a contact form where interested buyers can fill in their name, phone number and email address, and the company uses this to get back in touch with them.

Kaymera was founded in 2013, while the NSO Group was founded in 2010.

Mexico is reported to be NSO’s first overseas client, in 2011, and one of the first specific references to Pegasus spyware appeared in an alleged 2012 contract between the firm and the Panama government.

‘Mobile Threat Defence’ software and apps

There is a new market emerging called ‘Mobile Threat Defence’ (MTD). The mobile security market is expected to reach nearly $123 billion by 2027.

MTD solutions are largely targeted at organisations, not individual customers, since employees often use their own devices for company work, especially with the rise of remote working.

Also, companies have more to lose than an individual when, for example, a malware steals proprietary information. 

In addition, it is a better financial prospect for security companies to deal with organisations, since they will buy more licences to cover all employee devices.

Indian companies already seem savvy to the existence of security tools to ward off cyberattacks. A 2016 Cisco white paper says “65 per cent of organisations in India use mobile security, compared with 49 per cent of organisations outside India”. 

MTD solutions work by collecting and analysing information from devices to check for abnormal behaviour and then counter potential cyberattacks. MTD solutions can also compare the behaviour of a healthy device with that of a phone that is suspected to have been infected with malware, to recognise malicious activity.

MTD products usually come in the form of a dashboard the organisation can use to monitor devices. The dashboard is easier to view on a large computer screen. MTD services are available via mobile apps also. 

For example, US-based Broadcom offers a free app to protect users against mobile attacks that helps detect if any apps on your phone are malicious, and alerts you to WiFi networks you should not connect to. The app is called Symantec Endpoint Protection Mobile. Users in India can download it too from the Apple and Google app stores

The results are based on a survey that looked at over 1,700 security professionals in 9 countries, including India.

The MTD market has been steadily growing since 2016, and there are multiple companies working in this space. 

In India, IBM sells mobile security solutions, as does the US- and Bengaluru-based company named 42Gears. MTD products are also provided by companies like the California-based Lookout (which has worked on analysing Pegasus spyware) and Check Point Software Technologies.

Most companies sell their enterprise-level MTD solution in any country. 

Also Read: What is Pegasus? The ‘ultimate spyware’ used for surveillance

Open-source toolkit created by Amnesty International

NGO Amnesty International, which claims to have analysed the Pegasus spyware and is involved in the recent expose, has released a software tool that can tell if your phone has been hacked by the malware.

The tool is called a Mobile Verification Toolkit (MVT).

The toolkit may not be easy for everyone to use since the application does not have a convenient graphical user interface, like the other apps we use, which have buttons and icons (graphics) to click when we want to do something.

The Amnesty tool instead relies on the user typing commands into the interface to perform functions, and not everyone knows how to do that.

However, Amnesty is working to make the tool more user friendly, according to the organisation’s tech director Rasha Abdul-Rahim. 

“Some of you have pointed out that the MVT kit needs more explanation and that it is not very user-friendly. Just to let you know we have heard you and we’re working on it… Please bear with us during this incredibly busy time — we are hard at work on this,” she tweeted earlier this week. 

The toolkit can be downloaded via GitHub, an open-source software development platform.

(Edited by Sunanda Ranjan)

Also Read: Cyberspace splitting along US-China geopolitical lines, India needs a stance: Govt cyber chief


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