Mobile phone viruses - a future threat?

by Staff Writer | posted on 30 November 2003

A week after a group of consultants in London agreed that it was "amazing" that phone viruses were not yet a major problem, the New York Times has reported that it is.

The paper claims the danger to mobile-phone networks is probably five times bigger than with personal computers because very few people are focused on this problem now, according to consultant Andrew Cole, senior vice president at Adventis.

Cole is quoted: "The dominant form of messaging is going to be cell-to-cell, so this could escalate very rapidly and overload phone networks. What if viruses phone 9-1-1 (the US emergency number) randomly?"

The article, re-published on the International Herald Tribune quotes incidents in Japan in 2000 and 2001, when DoCoMo suffered from a similar problem.

"Customers were being sent messages that froze their screens and automatically dialled 1-1-0, the hot line to the police in Japan," says the report.

The report, doesn't focus on the issue which is really worrying corporate IT managers, which is the possible use of smartphones to provide a back door into office networks, since the phones don't have virus-detecting software for PCs.

An email attachment which would be detected instantly if it came into a personal computer, will be accepted without question by the email software on a smartphone; and could then infect the user's PC when the phone is connected for data synchronisation.

The NYT report (registration needed) points out that today, no single phone operating system dominates the mobile world the way Windows dominates the desktop: "For now, most mobile-phone companies customise the operating systems for their handsets, so the number of people using any one platform is small compared with, say, the number of people using Microsoft Outlook, a standard e-mail program for personal computers."

Malicious attacks on mobile phones in 2005 "could result in $471 million in costs for every five millions users affected," according to Stefan Fillip, a partner at Mercer Management Consulting in Hong Kong. "As soon as more 3G networks are deployed and people can send attachments and files, it'll get interesting for attackers."

But that can already happen on smartphones. The viruses, so far, are not phone viruses - but for now, a far more potent threat is the likelihood that executives will innocently open attachments received on their smartphones, and save them onto their PC hard disks later. "It's bound to happen," commented consultant Dean Bubley of Disruptive Analysis at last week's round table with Intuwave in London. "The only mystery, is why it hasn't happened already."

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