As the boundaries between cell phones and desktop functionality blur, the
danger of a worldwide wireless virus increases.
Do those sound like the words a doomsayer would revel in pronouncing?
After all, Paris Hilton and her T-Mobile address book aside, there hasn’t
been anything approaching a worldwide cell phone security problem since
carriers first started adding data capabilities to their handsets.
Take the first reports of Cabir, a cell phone virus that got its start last year as a proof-of-concept vulnerability on Symbian OS-enabled phones. This was before people started discovering the virus in cell phones throughout Europe, Asia and finally the United States.
To call Cabir a cell phone virus is somewhat of a misnomer. The bug doesn’t
travel over a mobile phone carrier’s network, but rather through the Bluetooth
connections found in certain types of mobile phones, which limits how far
and how fast it can travel. When a user accepts a caribe.sis file and elects to install the program, Cabir searches for other Bluetooth-enabled devices in its range.
For the time being, there’s no payload attached to the virus, although
security firm Symantec
warns the virus will shorten
battery life because of the repeated scans for other Bluetooth devices.
Not as prevalent, but more destructive, is the Skulls Trojan
OS application info and icons and replaces them with a skull icon.
The Trojan, which started appearing on Symbian OS shareware sites last year,
only targets the data applications; regular phone service is still available
Smartphones and feature phones — voice phones with data applications — are
the wave of a future that’s fast approaching. According to a
recent report by U.K.-based research firm Canalys, sales of the phones are
up 101 percent in the fourth quarter of 2004 from the same quarter in 2003;
Nokia alone sold nearly five million smartphones in the quarter.
Exposing The Mobile Virus
There’s not much that separates the functionality of these phones from a desktop’s or even a PDA’s: PalmOne’s Treo 650
supports Microsoft Exchange Server 2003 out of the box, letting users synch
their calendars and e-mail, while smartphone manufacturers are gearing up
with 3-D graphics accelerators.
“Probably about a third of all the cell phones in the U.S. are used by
people in the business sense,” said Adam Zawel, director of wireless/mobile
enterprise and commerce at the Yankee Group. “That doesn’t mean that these
devices are integrated into IT systems, but that will change when you get
more smartphones, and you see the merger between smartphone and PDA
Experts say that a smartphone virus, one that will spread throughout the
globe, is in the offering. It won’t happen today. It probably won’t even
happen next year, they say, but it’s inevitable.
“As the phone becomes more of a handheld computer, you’re going to encounter
the same sets of issues that you would encounter with your computer,” said
Evan Scott, president and founder of consulting firm Evan Scott Group.
“Today it’s not an issue because I think people still just use their phone
as a phone; over the next four, five years, as people start to incorporate
more computer activities in their handheld devices, then I think the viruses
will become a bigger issue.”
Part of the problem with smartphones, according to Vincent Weafer, Symantec security response senior director, is that while carriers
can put gateways in place to scan the traffic coming through the networks,
other wireless technologies circumvent that protection.
“If you look at many of these smartphones, you see that they don’t just
connect to the carrier,” he said. “You have the ability to connect to other
devices. You have Bluetooth. Some even come with the ability to use Wi-Fi
access directly to the Internet, so that the problem is you will always need
Weafer said that it is the same problem that exists with today’s desktop systems, where you need security at the desktop as well as at the Internet provider.
A Lesson in History
While viruses today seem innocuous enough, and hardly worth the headache to
diligent cell phone users, history has shown the desktop viruses of
yesterday were merely a preamble to the danger they pose today.
Consider the Melissa virus, which was one of the first desktop viruses to
gain worldwide notoriety. Launched in 1999 through the alt.sex Internet discussion group, it tore through the
Internet community, and though its author, David Smith, was eventually jailed
for his actions, Melissa ended up causing more than $80 million in damages
Melissa was one of several big-name viruses — remember the “I Love
You” virus and Concept? — that brought attention to desktop security;
today’s viruses, like Bagle,
can be even more costly, setting up e-mail proxies on the user’s desktop to
launch massive spam campaigns worldwide.
It’s only a matter of time before smartphone viruses like Cabir start
delivering a Trojan horse that causes monetary damage or results in the
theft of private information, experts worry. Unlike the damage caused on
the desktop by the first viruses, end users and companies alike are
more aware of the potential dangers of cell phone viruses. But the
mechanism for unified virus protection and security patches for mobile operating systems hasn’t materialized, said one security analyst.
In The Event of an Attack?
Mikko Hypponen, research director at security firm F-Secure, said there’s no
easy method for an end user to update their smartphone’s operating system. There are no Windows Updates in the event vulnerabilities in the platform are
Mobile operating system market leader Symbian, which licenses its technology
to smartphone manufacturers like Nokia, Motorola, Sony Ericsson and Fujitsu,
doesn’t have an OS security update center on its Web site. The company says it works closely with anti-virus vendors, network operators and
manufacturers to make its product secure.
PalmSource, another mobile OS, directs its users to the support site of the applicable handset manufacturer. And according to Hyponnen, handset manufacturers do not provide updates to the OS itself.
“The infrastructure doesn’t exist; the only way to do it right now is to
take your phone to the repair shop and leave it there for a day or two or
sell it, which doesn’t scale,” Hypponen said.
The reason there is no service, according to Symbian’s security site, is
because no one has discovered any vulnerabilities in its OS. None of the malware
site notes, can be attributable to vulnerabilities in the operating system.
Instead, the viruses “mislead Symbian OS phone users into accepting and/or
installing the malware.”
Officials also point out that incidences of the viruses in the wild have
been isolated and that only in rare cases do users need to take a phone into
a service center to have applications re-installed.
Laurie Spindler, a spokeswoman for PalmSource, said that while the company
does not have a platform like the Windows update site, there are third-party
vendors that deliver software security features, such as Credant Technologies
and JP Mobile.
Securing a Team Effort
In the end, it comes down to a question of responsibility. Who ultimately
needs to make sure their smartphones are secure? Is it the
mobile phone carrier, the end user, the phone’s manufacturer or the OS
Tom Pica, a spokesperson at Verizon Wireless, said providers and end users
alike share responsibility.
“We have a role to play, and the user has a role to play,” he said. “We’re
entering a new world of data, so just at home you have certain
responsibilities in terms of you should have a firewall, you should have
anti-virus protection and you should take care of things like passwords and
what you store on your device.”
The market is also lending a hand. Upal Basu is co-founder and
vice president of marketing at mFormation, a mobile phone device management
vendor for carriers and enterprises. Companies like mFormation that provide over-the-air diagnosis and patch updates regardless of the device, he said,
will be a boon to carriers looking to provide mobile phone protection.
He said the question of responsibility is complex, and will only get more
complex with time as the mobile population grows.
“Who gets affected the most if a virus does take off and who gets
compromised the most? If it’s an employee of an enterprise, the
thing that gets affected is the business of that company,” he said. “So for the corporate users, I think it will be the IT department that takes
responsibility for the virus.
“For the consumer world, it has to be the mobile operator in
partnership with a file creation company to provide some sort of guarantee
to all their customers that says, ‘look when you use data services from
Verizon, you are ensured that there is a virus check that happens
automatically,” he continued.
Fortunately, there’s time for the industry and customers to figure this out, though Scott is convinced it will take a major virus on the scale of Melissa before users in the United States take cell phone viruses seriously. “We’re a reactive society,” he said.
You can bet Ms. Hilton, and all her contacts, are taking a pretty good look
at security options right now.