Dial 'V' for Virus: Cell Phones and PDAs at Risk

by Lauren Simonds

As more people migrate to phones and handhelds to connect to the Internet, the risk of viral attacks increases. What can you do to keep ahead of the curve?

The experts agree: It's only a matter of time until cell phones, handhelds, smart phones and PDAs become inundated by viruses, Trojan worms and spam — prime targets for any hacker with a grudge and too much time on his hands. The good news is that there's time for small business owners to understand — and to prepare for — the coming threat.

Mobile phones fall into two categories: audio-centric (i.e., phones that do nothing more than make and receive phone calls) and data-centric, multi-function devices that connect to the Internet, send and receive e-mail, attachments and text messages.

Currently audio-centric phones — which don't connect to any network and can't be infected — comprise the bulk of the phones out there, but data-centric phones are coming on strong. A study by ABI Reasearch estimate world-wide Smartphone shipments at 80 million in 2005 and nearly 150 million by 2008.

According to Todd Thiemann, the director of device security at Trend Micro, virus writers go where the audience is. "As the population of people using data-centric phones grows, it will attract people who want nothing more than to disrupt things," he said. Thiemann calls the recent spate of mobile device-related threats — such as SYMBOS_SKULLS.A (which targets phones using the Symbian operating system, especially Nokia 7610 models) and SYMBOS_CABIR.A (which affects BLUETOOTH-enabled phones) — a shot across the bow. "At this point, the four threats were written as proof of concept," said Thiemann. "The hackers mainly wanted to show it could be done."

Thiemann's not alone in his belief that mobile phone viruses will spread as data phones increase in popularity. An article in the November 26, 2004 issue of the The Washington Post attributes Gartner analyst John Pescatore as saying that by the year 2006, cell phone viruses will cause as many problems as PC viruses are today.

Protecting Your Phone
Trend Micro recently announced Mobile Security 1.0, a software program designed to prevent handheld, Internet-capable devices from viruses, Trojan horses and Short Message Service (SMS) spam. Currently available as a free download (until June 30, 2005), Mobile Security supports all major platforms including:

  • Microsoft Windows Mobile 2003 for Smartphones (phones include: Motorola MPx200, MPx220, Samsung SCH-i600, etc)
  • Symbian 7.0 & UIQ v2.0/2.1 user interface (phones include: Sony Ericsson P800, P900, P910)
  • Windows Mobile 2003 for PocketPC (Phone Edition)
  • Windows Mobile 2003 Second Edition

Key Features
Text messaging, or texting as it's more commonly known, has been a big seller overseas for some time, and it's now becoming very popular here, especially among teenagers. It's also another venue for spam, which is why, according to Thiemann, Mobile Security includes SMS Spam Filtering capability.

Thiemann said the software's flexible virus scanning provides three ways to scan for threats. Real-time scanning is designed to protect your handheld even when you're in the middle of downloading data to the device. Automatic Smart Card scanning examines any Smart Card you insert into your phone, and Manual Scanning let's you initiate a scan on demand.

You have to keep your phone current with virus updates in order for the scanning software to recognize the latest threat. According to Thiemann, Mobile Security can receive virus pattern updates wirelessly via GPRS or through your desktop using synchronization software Microsoft Activesync.

An SMB Tip
If you're thinking about upgrading the mobile phones for your business, Thiemann said the best option to protect your employees from these types of attacks is to check with your local cellular carrier to see if they offer virus protection as part of their overall coverage plan. "It's much more economical given that many SMBs lack the IT resources necessary to roll out and maintain the equipment and the software."

Also, standardizing your company on one type of mobile device or phone makes supporting the technology more efficient and cost-effective.

Lauren Simonds is the managing editor of SmallBusinessComputing.com

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This article was originally published on Thursday Jan 20th 2005
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