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Viral Attacks Threaten Smartphones

February 18, 2010

Smartphone users may have a new worry to contend with as cyber criminals seek to break into web-connected mobile devices, but the threats so far have been contained by the mobile industry, according to security experts.

The Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain provided software security firms an opportune time to bring up warnings that the mobile industry could be facing serious viral attacks now and in the future.

Mikko Hyppoenen, chief research officer at antivirus software company F-Secure, warned that if a worm made its way into mobile phones, it could spread globally in as little as five minutes. “It could have happened already. It hasn’t, but it could happen.” Sooner or later it will happen, but there are no answers for when, Hyppoenen explained to AFP.

But security companies and mobile phone makers have already found solutions to limit the attacks that have happened already, he said. “It won’t work forever, eventually we will see the first global outbreak. But we have been able to delay it by more than five years, at least.”

So far, since the first virus was found in mobile phones six years ago, there have only been 430 mobile worms detected by F-Secure. This is a needle in a haystack for viruses when compared to the millions and millions of viruses affecting computers.

Initially, like the first viruses years ago for computers, attacks are done by hobbyists just showing off their skills, but eventually this turns into a more lucrative market for money-making criminals who move in and take over where the hobbyists leave off, Hyppoenen said.

One of the first viruses to make its way into the mobile market was called Skulls. It spread through wireless blue-tooth systems appearing on the phone’s screen and then deleted all of the data stored inside. Also, a few “Trojan” viruses have been found that infiltrate’s a user’s phone and sends text messages to premium numbers controlled by the hacker, he said.

Although security firms have developed anti-spam and anti-virus software, and anti-theft features for mobile phones, cyber-criminals have an easy target in smartphones that use email and Internet services. Mobile banking through applications is a fast growing service that will surely give way for increased hack attempts in the future, experts believe.

“It is all about money,” said Eugene Kaspersky, founder and chief executive of software protection firm Kaspersky Lab. “Malware is developed to make more money. It doesn’t matter if it’s computers or smartphones.”

Kaspersky told AFP that his company has detected an average of 30 mobile viruses per month over the past year. He believes that the next wave of attacks could be financial assaults and may happen sooner than later. Although it took more than 20 years for computer attacks to become financial windfalls for cyber-criminals, Kaspersky expects in mobile devices “it will take much less time.”

According to Ovum research firm’s mobile device expert, Adam Leach, the threats are minimal and he said the industry is on top of the situation. Threats haven’t been as extreme as expected, he said, and companies are finding ways to “minimize the threat.”

Leach does warn, however, that mobile companies should be aware and not let their guards down. If companies do not take the threats seriously, there could be a huge impact on mobile phones and their users.

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