Researchers from LUMS, UC Berkeley & Duke University Conduct Study on Mobile Devices

Monday, January 9, 2017

A recent study on mobile devices in developing countries, conducted by researchers at LUMS, UC Berkeley, and Duke University, shows that they can be a major bottleneck and a security threat.

Mobile devices are a dominant source for Internet access in developing countries. They are being used for a variety of services including agricultural information dissemination, education, and health care delivery. However, there is little insight into the characteristics of devices being used in such regions.

Using a dataset of 0.5 million subscribers from one of the largest cellular operators in Pakistan, researchers at LUMS, UC Berkeley, and Duke University recently presented the first in-depth analysis of cell phone features (e.g., CPU speeds, cellular interface, and level of security) at ACM IMC 2016, the premier conference on Internet measurements and analysis. The conference was held in Santa Monica, California in November 2016.

The research team comprised Dr. Ihsan Ayyub Qazi, LUMS; Dr. Zafar Ayyub Qazi, UC Berkeley; Dr.Theophilus Benson, Duke University; Zhenyu Zhou, PhD student at Duke University and Sohaib Ahmad and Abdul Lateef Haamid, CS undergraduates at LUMS.

“It is rather surprising that initiatives on improving Internet access in developing countries have almost solely focused on network infrastructure and completely ignored user devices,” said Dr. Ihsan Ayyub Qazi. While the Internet infrastructure has been steadily improving in developing regions and several efforts (e.g., Google’s Project Loon and Facebook’s Connectivity Lab) focus on providing Internet connectivity via satellites, balloons, drones, and planes, anecdotal evidence suggests that the common use of low end devices with a slow Internet connection can lead to poor user experience in developing regions.“Our study shows that low-end mobile devices in countries like Pakistan can be a major bottleneck for Internet access. This is unlike developed countries where network bottlenecks are usually more common due to the use of high-end mobile devices,” he said.

“This research highlights the fact that simply changing the network infrastructure is insufficient, changes in the network must be aware of device limitations,” said Dr. Zafar Ayyub Qazi. The study also highlights the potential security threat posed by low cost mobile phones. “A large number of mobile devices in developing countries have been discontinued by the vendors but are still in use due to reselling and their low cost. They present a major security threat as they can be easily compromised. In some sense, these mobile devices resemble IoT devices that were recently hacked to launch attack on the Dyn servers”, he said.

The study provides insights that have important implications for ICT research in developing regions especially related to improving user-perceived performance, hardening security of low end devices, and evolving network infrastructure to be aware of device limitations.