Mobile threats

While it is almost second nature for IT users to update anti-virus software on their PC, most people remain unaware of mobile viruses, and the consequences could be disastrous for network operators, as well as end-users.

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By  Administrator Published  April 8, 2008

While it is almost second nature for IT users to update anti-virus software on their PC, most people remain unaware of mobile viruses, and the consequences could be disastrous for network operators, as well as end-users.

With mobile phones becoming increasingly sophisticated, and with more than half of the world's population predicted to own a unit by the end of 2008, it is inevitable that mobile devices are facing an increasing threat from viruses.

But despite this, awareness of the problem is low, with most end-users and even many operators ignorant of the true extent of mobile viruses, their development and potential to wreak havoc.

The threat of malicious mobile viruses first appeared back in 2005 when a computer worm was found to be infecting Symbian series 60 mobile phones. The worm replicated itself through the phone's MMS system and sent copies of itself to other phone owners listed in the phone user's address book.

While there have been other similar outbreaks of mobile viruses on other operating systems, the problem so far has been limited in scale, and this has perhaps led to complacency among mobile users, operators and handset producers. But for many industry insiders who have been taking an interest in the subject, the problem can only get worse.

"Spam is getting bigger but the real coming threat is viruses on the phones. This is going to be devastating and the problem is that the world is unaware," says Patrick Hayati, regional director for McAfee. "Most phones are not protected because nothing on a major scale has happened before, so no-one is paying attention to that.

"When the outbreak happens, it will not be a small outbreak, it is going to be a massive worldwide outbreak and with the amount of people who carry cell phones and with the popularity of these type of devices, it is going to spread around the world in no time.

Virus types

There are various types of mobile virus, targeting all types of mobile device, from the most basic handsets to the latest PDAs. These viruses can cause handsets to dial premium rate phone numbers automatically, usually at night when the owner is likely to be unaware that anything is happening, or cause handsets to send SMS messages automatically.

Until now, the problem does seem to have been contained to relatively small outbreaks, but this situation is likely to change, according to Hayati. "It will eventually be of equal size to the computer virus problem," he says.

"People rely on their phone as much as they rely on their computer and there will always be bad guys who target these two devices, and eventually they will succeed, especially on phones where the awareness is a lot less.

"For PCs, awareness is high and most people understand the risks, and they are taking steps to mitigate it. On the phone, very few people understand or are aware even what the risks are.

Furthermore, the problem is likely to be exacerbated by the increasing use of PDAs by businesses and the growth of phones that can access the internet.

As mobile devices become more sophisticated, they require more complex SDKs - or software development kits - and in turn this gives greater opportunity for hackers and virus programmers to create problems. And with ever increasing amounts of sensitive data on mobile devices, the consequences of an attack also become greater.

How viruses spread

Mobile viruses have traditionally spread via SMS, by installing a script on a handset when the user has opened the offending text message. The script will then activate the handset at certain times, usually to call numbers or send text messages.

The damage caused tends to be limited to small groups of mobile users, mainly because the viruses tend to target single operating systems. They have also been limited in their ability to access data such as the user's phone book.

The danger now is that as mobile phones become more complex, viruses will increasingly be able to penetrate and use more sensitive information. It is also possible that a new breed of virus will be able to move from a PDA or mobile phone to a computer network.

Virus factfile

• The average mobile operator cleans 55,000 viruses off its network daily.

• 3% to 5% of all SMS is spam.

• We have seen 14% of MMS in the Middle East is virus-infected.

• The Middle East is uniquely vulnerable to viruses and spam, having a higher rate than the rest of the world.

• The latest mobile threats are SMS that charge a one-time fee to users who click on an embedded link, evidenced by a "Happy Ramadan" malware scam that hit Saudi Arabia last year.

• The new mobile viruses are designed to grab and send data stored in a phone or send a communication to every contact stored in a phone list. In Europe, an employee downloaded a virus, which sent a pornographic image to everyone in his corporate phone.

These stats are from mobile security provider AdaptiveMobile (www.adaptivemobile.com).

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