Mobile Industry Sees New Security Risks

Security systems can now block the first computer viruses plaguing mobile phones, but the mobile industry sees new risks stemming from upcoming open software platforms such as Google’s Android.

Since 2004, viruses have been able to disable phones or swell phone bills through pricey messages or unwanted calls, leading to a new market for security technology.

“If Android becomes a fully open platform … and when such a platform becomes more common, risks are greater than with the current platform kings such as Symbian,” said Mikko Hypponen, head of research at security software firm F-Secure.

Security specialists also pointed to potential risks arising from Apple’s plans to open its software platform to third-party developers this month.

“Apple has dealt very elegantly in the past with security issues,” said Jan Volzke, global marketing head at McAfee’s mobile unit. “There will be issues. Apple will fix them.”

[cob:Related_Articles]Roughly 65 percent of all smartphones sold in the fourth quarter used software from British supplier Symbian, according to research firm Canalys.

Apple was the fourth-largest vendor with 7 percent of the market, following Microsoft and RIM.

F-Secure and McAfee have been the leading security software vendors for mobiles, but many other antivirus firms rolled out products for the mobile industry over the last few years.

While the risk of a mobile phone getting infected is still relatively small, thousands of phones have seen problems.

“Although the first problems were already quite extensive and appeared all over the world, current smartphones from the largest device makers, particularly Nokia, have gotten rid of these problems,” said Hypponen.

Almost three out of four users were concerned about the safety of using new mobile services, showed a survey of 2,000 mobile phone users. McAfee commissioned the survey and unveiled it this week at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

“Concerns about specific mobile security risks or … reliability of services is a crucial issue for operators, particularly in mature markets,” Victor Kouznetsov, senior vice president at McAfee’s mobile unit, said in a statement.

Mobile service providers are increasingly betting on new data services when looking for growth in mature markets where call prices are falling.

“Consumer fears are growing in tandem with increased mobile functionality,” Kouznetsov said, adding this puts at risk the potential revenue from new services.

One in seven global mobile users have already been exposed to mobile viruses, either directly or by knowing someone whose phone has been infected, McAfee’s study showed.

Since 2004 when the first mobile virus appeared, 395 viruses, worms or other types of malware have surfaced, F-Secure said, adding that the number of malware has increased only slightly in the last 12 months.

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