Why Hacking a Phone is Harder Than You Think - And How to prevent it.

ยท 8 min read
Why Hacking a Phone is Harder Than You Think - And How to prevent it.
Photo by Rami Al-zayat / Unsplash

Hacking a phone is not as easy as many people think. Modern smartphones like iPhones and Android devices have extensive security protections built into both their hardware and software that make them extremely difficult to hack, especially for the average person.

Here are some things that make hacking phones a difficult endavor.

Unique Architecture Makes Hacking Harder

Unlike desktop operating systems like Windows or Linux, smartphones use a unique architecture that acts as a barrier to hacking attempts. Apps on phones don't run natively on the hardware like desktop programs. Instead, they run inside a virtual machine environment supervised by the host phone OS (like Android or iOS). This adds an extra security layer - apps can't directly access hardware components like the camera or microphone without permission from the host OS.

Android apps are written in Java and compiled into bytecode that only the Android Runtime can interpret. iOS apps are written in Swift/Objective-C and compiled into executable binaries that only work on iOS devices. This means hackers can't simply run malicious mobile apps the way they could run native Windows executables. Trying to bypass these restrictions requires root access to the OS kernel.

Built-In Security Frameworks

On top of the virtualized architecture, Android and iOS also incorporate mandatory security frameworks that enforce granular control over what apps can access. For example, Android uses Security Enhanced Linux (SELinux) to impose access controls on everything running on the device. Each app must adhere to a predefined security policy limiting its system privileges.

iOS employs a similar scheme with layered security policies and sandboxing to isolate apps from each other and the wider OS. App developers must request entitlements to use protected APIs.

So even if hackers got an app installed on your phone, it would still have to operate within the confines set by the security framework. These stringent restrictions make traditional malware approaches almost useless.

App Permissions

Installing apps on Android and iOS requires you to review and approve the permissions they request. This gives users transparency and control over what apps want to access.

Of course, blindly accepting unnecessary permissions diminishes your security. But sticking to trusted apps and only granting permissions closely aligned with the app's purpose drastically reduces the attack surface for hackers.

Periodically reviewing installed app permissions and removing any unfamiliar apps helps keep your phone locked down.


Today's smartphones encrypt all user data by default. Android uses the user's lock screen PIN/password to generate an encryption key. On iPhone, the encryption keys are hardware-bound and inaccessible even to Apple itself.

So if a hacker tries stealing data directly off the phone's storage, they'll only get meaningless gibberish without the decryption key. This protects your private data even if someone has physical possession of your device. This is also the reason why you should use the Most Secure Way to Lock Your Smartphone.

Brute forcing the phone's passcode is possible but extremely difficult given the high complexity and attempt limits built into Android and iOS. Strong passcodes with 6+ random characters remain secure against all but the most sophisticated cracking attempts.

Frequent Security Updates

Google and Apple continuously issue security patches to fix vulnerabilities that arise in Android and iOS. Phone makers also regularly release OS updates with security improvements for their devices.

This makes exploiting any single bug very time-sensitive. A vulnerability that works today could easily be patched tomorrow with an over-the-air update. Compare this to the fragmented ecosystem of desktop OSes, many of which no longer receive updates.

Harder To Social Engineer

Social engineering tactics like phishing are less effective on phones due to the walled garden nature of app distribution. Downloaded files and links can't execute arbitrary code without app developer entitlements. So users are less likely to get malware from a social engineering attack on mobile compared to desktop.

Of course, mobile phishing still exists, especially via text message. But sticking to first-party app stores remains one of the strongest defenses against malware.

Requires Physical Access

Many phone hacking techniques require physical access to the device, if only briefly. For example, juicing attacks try to force reboot it into recovery/DFU mode. SIM swapping requires actually porting your number to a hacker's SIM card.

These are unlikely threats for careful users. But they illustrate the lengths hackers have to go to in order to breach a phone's defenses with current techniques.

Zero-Day Exploits Still Possible

The most sophisticated hackers can still get into phones by exploiting zero-day bugs unknown to the manufacturer. This requires closely guarding the bug details so patches can't be released before using it.

Governments closely guard zero-days to use for lawful intercepts and surveillance. Private hackers or security researchers also discover them occasionally. A good example is the Pegasus spyware

But zero-days are extremely rare, expensive to obtain, and have a short shelf-life. They target individual bugs rather than broader security lapses. This makes them unrealistic for widespread criminal hacking.

Vulnerable If Rooted

The single greatest risk to any phone's security is allowing root access. Rooting sidesteps the isolation between apps and the underlying OS. It enables running unrestricted native code, which bypasses permissions and platform security rules.

Some Android vendors allow bootloader unlocking which enables rooting. Jailbreaking root access is also possible on many iPhones, though increasingly difficult with newer iOS versions.

But rooting comes with substantial downsides. You lose access to many apps reliant on a locked bootloader. Updates can become unusable. And it voids any manufacturer warranty or support. Maintaining root access often requires lagging behind security updates.

So for most users, rooting severely undermines a phone's security posture while providing limited benefits. Refusing to root is one of the simplest ways to keep your phone safe. One advatage is that phone operationg system vendors continousl release updates to operating systems that make it harder for system modifications as root. Recently it was announced that Android 14 blocks all modification of system certificates, even as root.

Common Hacking Techniques

While the security protections make hacking difficult, phones can still be compromised in some cases. Here are some of the ways hackers try to breach phones and how the attacks work:

Social Engineering

Tricking users into voluntarily disabling security and installing malware is a common tactic. Hackers use phishing attacks via email/text messages containing links to malicious apps or sites. If the user can be convinced to click the link and download software, it can bypass security settings and grant intrusive permissions. Avoiding suspicious downloads and links thwarts these social engineering schemes.


Malicious ads known as malvertisements can appear within apps and browsers. The goal is to entice users to click on the ad before they realize something is wrong. This clicks can trigger downloads of malware or redirect to phishing sites. Limiting app permissions and avoiding tapping shady ads reduces this threat.


SMS phishing or "smishing" uses text messages to distribute malware links or convince users to share sensitive info and install malicious apps. The texts appear to come from contacts or legitimate businesses. Scrutinizing texts from unknown numbers and not clicking unverified links defends against smishing.

Malware Apps

While rare, some malware apps can slip past vetting processes and appear in legitimate app stores. Hackers take advantage of less stringent review processes for some stores. Sticking to reputable apps, reading reviews, and avoiding unfamiliar developers minimizes this risk. Anti-malware apps provide another layer of protection against malware.


Attackers gather personal info through phishing and social media to impersonate victims. They use this to convince carriers to gain control of the victim's phone account and data. Strong passwords and PINs make pretexting more difficult. Being selective in sharing personal details also helps.

Bluetooth/Wi-Fi Hacking

Public Bluetooth/Wi-Fi can be monitored to intercept data in transit if connections are not encrypted. Turning these off when idle and using VPNs on public networks counters eavesdropping. Avoiding pairing with unverified Bluetooth devices also helps.

Physical Access Abuse

Stealing an unlocked phone lets intruders directly access data. Password protection, device encryption, remote wipe abilities, and Find My Phone apps deter physical attacks. Never leaving devices unattended in public helps prevent theft.

Zero-Day Exploits

Advanced hackers uncover and use undisclosed OS bugs before fixes are available. But patches roll out quickly these days, limiting the viability of zero-days. Sophisticated nation-state spyware like Pegasus infects phones via spear-phishing texts/emails or by exploiting zero-day flaws. Still, keeping phones updated is the best defense against potential zero-day exploits.

Protecting Against Phone Hacking

Use a Strong Passcode and Phone lock methods

Using strong passcodes with 6 or more random characters and enabling secondary authentication methods like fingerprint unlock or face ID makes brute forcing encryption far more difficult. Stronger passcodes make brute forcing significantly more difficult. Avoid weak passcodes like birthdays or dictionary patterns. Enable secondary authentication like fingerprint unlock when available.

Review App Permissions

It's important to check app permissions during installation and only grant those closely aligned with the purpose of the app, as well as periodically audit installed apps and remove any unnecessary permissions.

Install Updates Promptly

Regularly installing operating system and application updates as soon as they become available is critical, as updates patch security flaws and holes that could potentially be exploited by hackers.

Manage Wireless Connections

Turning off Bluetooth and Wi-Fi when not actively in use closes those potential doors to data interception, and using VPNs on public Wi-Fi networks keeps browsing secure and private in those vulnerable hotspot environments.

Minimize Sensitive Data

Minimizing the storage of sensitive personal data like ID photos, financial information and login credentials reduces the impact of what could be compromised in the event of a successful hack. This explains the importance of backups and encrypted storage. Cloud storage comes in handy with such but it is good to consider encrypted cloud storage options instead of the ones we are used to which most of the time do not respect user privacy.

Avoid Public Charging Stations

Avoiding public charging stations reduces risk, as "juice jacking" malware has been known to infect phones via rigged public chargers. Using portable power banks instead is a safer alternative.

Use Trusted App Sources

One of the best ways to avoid malicious apps is to only install apps from official stores like the Google Play Store and Apple App Store. These stores vet apps to help ensure they are safe and don't contain malware before allowing them to be published. Avoiding third-party app stores reduces the risk of inadvertently installing a compromised app.

Review App Permissions

It's critical to carefully review the permissions requested by an app during installation. Only grant permissions that make sense for how the app functions. For example, a flashlight app shouldn't need access to contacts and messages. Pay close attention to permissions related to sensitive components like the camera, microphone, location, storage and contacts. Remove unnecessary permissions periodically by auditing your installed apps.

Exercise caution around links sent via messages or emails. Even if the source seems trusted, the link could go to a malicious site. Phishing attacks try to trick users this way. Don't click on unverified links, especially from unknown senders. This prevents opening the door to malware.

Encrypt Local Backups

Make sure to encrypt any local backups of your phone's data. Encrypted backup files provide an added layer of protection in case your computer is compromised. Avoid unencrypted backups that could expose photos, messages, credentials and sensitive phone data if accessed by hackers.

Don't Root/Jailbreak

Avoid rooting or jailbreaking your phone unless absolutely necessary. These processes bypass built-in security restrictions and expose the device to greater risk. They allow deeper system modification but also reduce the safeguards keeping hackers at bay.

Factory Reset If Compromised

Finally, if a phone has been hacked, wiping it and restoring factory settings removes any persistent malware, but also deletes data, so critical files should be backed up first.

With vigilance and consistently following common security best practices, users have several options available for locking down phones and safeguarding their personal data.

Use Common Sense

Smartphones have come a very long way in security. While not impervious, modern Android and iPhones have layers of overlapping defenses that make them far more secure than traditional PCs. Exercising caution in installing apps and controlling access to your phone will keep you protected from most hacking threats. With basic precautions, smartphones are reasonably hardened against intrusion.

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