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MIT Technology Review

  • John Hering


    In 2005 John Hering notoriously invented a hacking “rifle” called the BlueSniper that enabled him to take control of a Nokia handset from a record-setting distance of 1.2 miles. But though he’s been a hacker since childhood, Hering isn’t the kind of hacker you have to worry about. In fact, his mission is to keep your cell phone safe from malware.

    The BlueSniper stunt was all about exposing security weaknesses in Bluetooth technology. ­Hering used the attention he got from it to further a more ambitious idea: that there should be a central database of information about phone malware. In 2007 he cofounded Lookout Mobile Security with two college buddies and created a free app that protects Android users from malicious apps—say, a fake version of a game that tacks an easy-to-miss $5 charge onto your monthly smartphone bill. Lookout found 1,000 instances of virus-infected apps last year and found that Android users had a 4 percent chance of encountering malware, a number expected to rise.

    To stay on top of the bad guys, Lookout has built what it calls the Mobile Threat Network: a giant database, tallying more than a million rogue apps, that it continuously adds to as the company’s software scans and analyzes apps worldwide. When an Android smartphone owner uses Lookout’s app, it compares installed apps against its database of known threats and notifies the user when it detects a match.

    Users can help by allowing Lookout to collect data from their mobile devices, essentially crowdsourcing the job of finding threats. That approach to identifying malware stands in contrast to the methods used by traditional security software for desktop computers, which rely on professionals working in the background to find threats in the digital wild.

    Last year, Lookout blocked millions of mobile threats, according to the company. More than 20 million people have downloaded the app. (Most of Lookout’s revenue comes from users who pay $3 a month to subscribe to a premium service that also secures mobile devices’ Web browsers and makes it possible to lock or erase stolen phones remotely. But Hering won’t say whether the privately held company is profitable yet.) 

    Hering says he thinks of his approach to mobile security as one that will empower users, not hamper them, as desktop security programs sometimes do. “Security is typically something that’s thought of as a burden,” he says. “It slows down your computer, it tries to scare you. It’s all these things that we don’t stand for.”

    Rachel Metz

    Hering’s company, Lookout, helps keep malware off your phone.

    Photograph by Timothy Archibald