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Experts Predict Possible Massive Mobile Phone Virus

April 23, 2009

Researchers predict that a widespread outbreak of mobile phone viruses will occur once a sufficient number of them share an operating system (OS), BBC News reported.

Bluetooth could spread viruses that experts say would reach all users of a given OS in days, whereas those spread by multimedia messages could spread in just hours.

However, it would likely only occur if a specific OS gained around 10 percent of the market share.

Presenters at the Science Beyond Fiction conference in Prague described the massive virus spread as a “percolation transition”.

Albert-Laszlo Barabasi, Director of the Center for Complex Network Research at Northeastern University, published a study in 2008 on the movements of more than 100,000 mobile phone users.

The study showed which “social networks” an individual user inhabits as well as their patterns of movement, which exhibited surprising repetition and predictability.

The researchers are now focusing on how these networks could facilitate the proliferation of mobile viruses.

Barabasi told BBC News there are more than 600 mobile phone viruses out there and the viruses have reached a level of sophistication in two years that computer viruses took more than two decades to achieve.

He explained that mobile viruses can spread through either Bluetooth or through a file sent as a multimedia message.

“You have to have the right operating system; the viruses that will spread on the iPhone will not spread on Nokia’s, and vice versa,” he said.

He said the Bluetooth way is relatively slow because it’s driven by human mobility, suggesting it may take anywhere from days to months to spread, particularly if it’s not a popular phone.

However, the viruses can no longer spread once users take infected phones to shops and replace or reset them.

But he said MMS viruses are instantaneous and can spread to everyone in your address book within two minutes.

“Within a few hours everyone who is reachable would have it,” he added.

The researchers turned to the network theory that was used in the 2008 work to discover the reason that this hasn’t happened. They used the data set that showed them the details of users’ movement and social connections.

They also noted a phenomenon known as a “percolation transition” that is well studied in network theory. It states that in social networks, beyond the transition, everyone is connected to everyone.

However, the transition describes the point of no return when applied to mobile viruses: when everyone who could conceivably have a given virus will get it.

MMS viruses have spread so slowly up until now that operators have had a chance to block them, but experts feel the future scenario will be very different.

Barabasi said we’re currently under the percolation threshold, as only 5 percent of users have smartphones and even those are fragmented into different operating systems since the largest one doesn’t even reach 3 percent of the overall market.

“We predict that once any operating system reaches 10 percent of the whole user market, then the percolation transition will happen, and then the viruses will spread everywhere,” he said.

But he said a virus spread via MMS wouldn’t necessarily reach every single handset with a given operating system, but they would cast their net before operators could have time to stop them.

Bluetooth-mediated viruses, while having a much slower rate of infection, could conceivably reach every user of a given OS, he said.

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