News Column

With the spread of smartphones, privacy leaks are on the rise

June 6, 2014

Saudi Gazette report AS more and more people buy smartphones to communicate, browse the Web and use Internet-enabled applications, unprecedented amounts of personal information is being stored and shared between devices and third party websites. As a result, privacy breaches are common, leaving many users vulnerable to blackmail and identity theft.

Victims who have their phones stolen are often shocked to find their private information being leaked online and in some cases, workers at stores that repair smartphones are behind such privacy breaches, according to a report in Al-Riyadh newspaper.

Mariam Al-Mousa, a student counselor, said crimes of blackmail are most often associated with the cyber world. Police and the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (Haia) often help victims of blackmail but a large segment of society remains in the grips of fear about the potential fallout of the misuse of smartphones.

She added that most people, especially women, are ignorant about the risks of sharing personal information stored on smartphones.

Al-Mousa drew attention to the illegal and unethical methods adopted by some employees at mobile phone repair shops. Employees have been known to download pictures and other personal information from female customers' phones with the objective of leaking the information or using it to blackmail them.

"The most alarming thing is stealing of important personal or financial data as well as downloading personal pictures of customers, especially women. Apart from this, there is a chance for infecting the mobile set with viruses that may cause damage to the device," she said.

Lamya Abdurahman recounted a bitter experience where a worker at a mobile phone store blackmailed her. "The worker, who was an Arab national, accessed my personal information when I handed my mobile phone for repairs. He then hacked my e-mail and accessed my personal messages and started blackmailing me with threats to post my pictures and personal details on the Internet if I did not meet and have sex with him," she said, adding that the man also demanded money from her.

Lamya said she managed to recover her personal data with the help of a tech-savvy relative. "After this, I lodged a complaint with the police and the man was arrested," she added.

Suleiman Al-Qahtani, professor of computer engineering at King Saud University and an IT expert at King Fahd Security Academy, said the spread of smartphones and massive use of social networking sites and wide variety of applications has fueled personal data breaches.

"This poses a grave threat to security agencies, which in turn are forced to enact new rules and regulations to contain the rising tide of cybercrimes and punish violators."

Referring to the unique features of smartphones, Al-Qahtani said the devices can be considered giant warehouses that contain a user's personal, financial and other sensitive information. "In case of losing a mobile handset, the damage could be significant mainly because of the loss of personal data and images, including passwords, pictures and videos."

According to Al-Qahtani, the fast growth of the IT sector is also to blame for the immense security dangers both for individuals and institutions. As far as individuals are concerned, the main dangers included blackmailing, impersonation and violation of privacy.

Regarding government institutions, the dangers included exposure of government's security secrets, accessing sensitive information concerning military or intelligence agencies or government projects. For private establishments, the dangers include breaches of confidential employee information, internal circulars, financial information and loss of intellectual property.

Referring to blackmail crimes involving women, Al-Qahtani said it is easy to access personal information from mobile phones. "Most young women are unaware of most of the features and applications of their smartphones and, therefore, it is easy for blackmailers to take advantage of them," he said, while urging women to lodge complaints with the Hai'a if someone blackmails them.

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Source: Saudi Gazette, The

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