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Tuesday, 28 January, 2003, 08:46 GMT
Mobile virus threat looms large
Youngsters using mobiles, BBC
As phones grow up they become susceptible to viruses
Mobile phones and handheld computers are becoming a tempting target for virus writers, warn experts.

By 2005 anti-virus experts expect that customers of one or more mobile networks will have been struck by a malicious program designed to exploit security failings on portable devices.

By that date experts believe newer third-generation phones will be popular and handheld computers more powerful, making them susceptible to the tricks that help viruses infect desktop computers.

Anti-virus firms caution telecommunication operators and handset makers to prepare now how they will deal with any outbreak to avoid the crippling financial and public relations costs of subjecting customers to a virus.

Pernicious program

Viruses have already been created that exploit vulnerabilities in mobile phones and handheld computers. Most of them have been harmless.

Two viruses have appeared for the Palm handheld computer. The first, called Liberty, tried to delete all the applications stored on the gadget but could not spread from Palm to Palm. The second, called Phage, was only ever seen in the laboratory.

One e-mail virus, called Timophonica, appeared in Spain and tried to send text messages to random mobile phone numbers but did not spread via handsets.

One of the most serious outbreaks took place in Japan in June 2000.

These devices are going to be more like a computer than a telephone

Sal Viveros, Network Associates

Users received a prank e-mail asking them to click on the enclosed web link. Every time someone opened the link it dialled 119, the number of the Japanese emergency services which was swiftly inundated with calls.

Anti-virus experts believe these incidents are simply a taste of what is to come.

"Virus writers go after critical mass, they want to hit as many people as possible" said Sal Viveros, spokesman for anti-virus firm Network Associates.

Threat assessment

Mr Viveros said the risk of a mobile virus infecting thousands was growing as mobile devices became more sophisticated.

Mobile phone networks are rapidly adopting standard net technologies that make it easier for them to offer multimedia services. But these changes make phones vulnerable to some of the infection techniques used by many desktop computer viruses.

"Most people do not realise that these devices are going to be more like a computer than a telephone," said Mr Viveros.

Many networks are also offering "always-on" network connections to customers that ensure they get their e-mail and text messages as fast as possible.

Love Bug virus screen shot, AP
Experts fear a big outbreak will hit mobile devices
However, said Mr Viveros, these constant connections could be exploited by viruses to spread much more quickly than they would if phones connected to data networks more intermittently.

Already in the US T-Mobile has put in place a firewall that attempts to limit the freedom vandals have to poll and infect computers that connect via its wireless data network.

Drawing on research collated for Network Associates by the Mercer Group, Mr Viveros said that by 2005 mobile devices will be vulnerable to viruses because networks will be fast enough to ship small programs around and devices will be powerful enough to run them.

An outbreak involving a hoax e-mail, instant message or a malicious program could strike millions of people very quickly, warned Mr Viveros.

If the outbreak reached the severity of some desktop computer viruses such as the Love Bug it could cost telecommunications firms billions to clean up, he said.

See also:

17 Jan 02 | Science/Nature
22 Sep 00 | Science/Nature
01 Sep 00 | Science/Nature
07 Jun 00 | Science/Nature
10 May 99 | Middle East
25 Aug 00 | Science/Nature
Internet links:


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