The New Digital Divide

The fact that President Obama devoted a significant portion of his annual State of the Union address to discuss cybersecurity shows just how critical this issue is. But when it comes to cybersecurity, most people tend to think primarily in terms of massive corporate hacks, thanks in large part to recent headline-grabbing data breaches at well-known companies like Sony, Target and JP Morgan.

In doing so, we’re neglecting the security of something else that is extremely vulnerable to digital breaches – something most of us carry around all day, every day, and which contains our most precious data and personal information: Our phones.

As our world becomes increasingly connected in the so-called “Internet of Things” – with our phones talking to our home security systems, our smart watches engaging our thermostats, our tablets linking to our coffee makers, and so on – mobile privacy and security is only becoming more and more important.

The good news is that even if this issue is not always top of mind for most people, mobile users here in the U.S. are increasingly aware of the privacy risks that exist when using their devices. A recent survey found that nearly 90 percent of respondents expressed concerns about identity theft and exposure to malware. And just one-third of respondents said they felt in control of their own personal information stored on their devices.

That is why our company helped fund a recent project led by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, called, which assigns privacy grades to thousands of Android apps, based on the difference in a user’s expectations about the app’s behavior, and how the app actually operates. The idea is to help users become more aware about how many seemingly innocuous apps – many of which target children – actually use and share our personal data.

The problem is when pundits and mobile security experts do discuss personal mobile data security, they do so through a predominately first-world lens. To the extent this is an overlooked issue in the U.S. relative to how serious the risks are, the disconnect is just as bad, if not worse, in other parts of the world. A 2014 report by Symantec looking at internet security threats around the world found that 38 percent of mobile users had experienced mobile cybercrime, while 57 percent were “unaware that security solutions existed for mobile devices.”

Mobile security risks are only going to to get bigger as global smartphone usage continues to expand at breakneck speed (currently 96 out of every 100 people on the planet have access to a mobile phone, and one-third of the human population is expected to use smartphones by 2017).

But if you think Americans are isolated from mobile security challenges in other parts of the world, think again. Last month, German researchers discovered massive security flaws in the global network that is used to connect calls, text messages, and various communications between cellular providers. The worst part? One cellular carrier “in Congo or Kazahkstan, for example, could be used to hack into cellular networks in the United States, Europe, or anywhere else.”

So, if we’re serious about stopping data theft and reducing threats to mobile privacy, we’re going to need to think globally. NQ Mobile is in the unique position of being an internationally-based mobile technology firm that supplies security and privacy apps to mobile carriers across the developing world, and We’re witnessing this explosion in the use of mobile usage firsthand. From our perspective, focusing solely on data security in the first world is like trying to put out a house fire with one glass of water.

In a world where we’re all connected, the digital divide is no longer solely about who is connected and who’s not – it’s about who’s protected and who’s not.

So what can be done?

Above all, we need more education and awareness about the importance of mobile security. With the rapid adoption of mobile devices, now is the time to nip the problem in the bud and ensure that users everywhere understand the risks to their privacy and data and know how to protect their devices.

President Obama is right to look for workable government solutions to larger corporate cyber threats, and developing and developed nations alike need to take steps to enhance data security and privacy. But, the best line of defense is ensuring that everyone with a mobile device takes the security of their device seriously. The tools exist to protect consumers – they just need to use them.

In a hyper-connected world, we’re only as strong as our weakest link. We must treat this challenge like the global issue it is, and work together to ensure we’re protecting ourselves and therefore, each other.

Omar Khan