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Vanquish the Cell-Phone Virus

Wireless devices can easily wreak electronic havoc.
May 1, 2005

Nine of the 10 technolo­gies that we describe in this month’s cover story (see “10 Emerging Technologies,”) will make people’s lives better in some interesting way. The 10th? Not so much. One of the wonders of the modern world, of course, is that nearly every person and apparently every electronic gadget can be connected. Wireless devices are taken for granted. Unfortunately, it turns out that these smart, connected gadgets can easily wreak electronic havoc. Virus programs, which have become an annoying fact of life for computer users, are now infecting cell phones, too (see “Cell-Phone Viruses,” p. 50). The impact will at first be minimal – your phone’s address book might get scrambled, or you might find yourself billed for a series of phone calls you didn’t make. But the potential for more-grievous harm is real, and it is very scary.

Americans used more than one trillion wireless-phone minutes in 2004, an increase of one-third over the previous year, according to CTIA, a wireless-industry trade organization. And as many have noted, cell phones will become our all-purpose tools for interacting with the digital world, regardless of our location. Increases in both wireless use and wireless capability multiply by many times the peril of a virus-infected cell phone. A corporate network fortified against wired assault may fall prey to a virus that hops from an employee’s cell phone or PDA as it syncs to a desktop machine. An even greater threat is wireless malware that spreads via the Bluetooth protocol, worming its way into, say, a car computer. In that instance, the damage could be a corrupted GPS navigation system or something far worse.

This threat first materialized just last year, when a malicious cell-phone program, a worm called Cabir, was released in June as a sort of proof-of-concept exercise by a group of hackers called 29A. Since then, Cabir has morphed into at least 15 varieties, which have struck cell phones in 14 countries.

Computers fall prey to viruses in part because there is a single dominant software platform for them to attack. The first wave to hit cell phones targets the Symbian operating system. Fortunately, cell phones are not so homogenous as PCs; a bug that strikes Symbian phones still leaves many millions of others ­unscathed. But that’s no cause for complacency. Symbian’s market share is growing; in the fourth quarter of 2004, 53 percent of ­mobile devices sold worldwide ran on its operating system. Wireless-service providers and cell-phone makers should get ahead of the threat. Just about every new PC comes preloaded with antivirus software; that needs to become the norm with mobile devices as well. The market would eventually demand it, but cell-phone vendors can take the first step by making such protection standard on all phones. Then maybe this latest digital scourge can be killed in its cradle.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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