Is your TV virus-proof?

As more cars and home appliances get networked, owners run a greater risk of contracting computer viruses.

The kitchen has long been considered a breeding ground for germs, but you probably don't expect your toaster to infect your cell phone.

A variety of consumer products--from smart phones to digital theater boxes, and from car navigation systems to home security gear--have gone digital. In addition, wireless connectivity has become a cheap add-on for gadgets.

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What's new:
A variety of consumer products--from smart phones to digital theater boxes, and from car navigation systems to home security gear--have gone digital.

Bottom line:
With that new technology comes exposure to a digital ill already the scourge of PC users: computer viruses.

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With that new technology comes exposure to a digital ill already the scourge of PC users: computer viruses.

"Like humans in a sterile environment, an unconnected device has no chance of infection," said Dan Cregg, vice president of home-automation company Smarthome. "But once you are connected to the outside world, then you are in danger."

Experts agree that with a rapidly expanding landscape of network-ready consumer products, there will be an explosion in opportunities for virus writers. While that hasn't happened yet, it's easy to see how and why it could, said experts.

Today's viruses and "bot" software aim to infect PCs and steal information, or to draft the systems into an online army that obeys the original attacker. Tomorrow's malicious code could disable home security systems, tinker with the TV, steal digital music collections or even lead a driver astray.

"The world of tomorrow includes all sorts of devices connected to networks via wireless, and this will present us with a new set of challenges and threats targeted at relatively vulnerable devices," Ajei Gopal, senior vice president of technology at security software maker Symantec, said in a speech at the Harvard Business School last month.

Ripe for infection?
Though many future devices could be attacked by computer viruses, others will be immune.
Device: Home automation

Danger: Switches and sensors can't be infected but could be controlled. Central server could be an infection point, especially if connected to the Internet.

Device: Smart phones

Danger: Cell phones, which increasingly resemble small computers, will be a likely target of viruses that gather identity information.

Device: Home media centers

Danger: Most are based on a PC and a standard operating system, so could come under attack as more people connect their devices to the Internet.

Device: Cars

Danger: Though cars have a myriad of processors, most cannot be programmed remotely. GPS navigation computers could be a target, but offer little of value to attackers.

Device: Home appliances

Danger: From Roomba vacuums to Internet-connected refrigerators, more devices have processors and bandwidth connections, but they hold little information of appeal to intruders.

Gopal also said that security software companies are at least thinking about how to minimize the danger of such threats. "Creating better protection for the mobile environment is critical, and these are issues that must be addressed in both (networking) infrastructure and on the devices."

As yet, there has not been a full-blown attack on non-PC devices. Mobile phones, which a report last week from IBM highlighted as the next major target of viruses, have just begun to attract writers of malicious programs. Some malicious cell phone programs--particularly the Cabir and Skulls viruses--managed to trick some people into installing them, though they did not become widespread.

The IBM report predicted, however, that the cell phone viruses will spawn a number of offshoots, because the source code for Cabir has been released. It also said that malicious programmers are likely to increasingly focus on finding new ways into systems, using the relatively recent Bluetooth wireless protocol and voice over IP, for example.

An antivirus company said last month that a Lexus car dealership had found a virus infection in the GPS navigation computers in several of its luxury cars. In fact, the reported infections turned out not to exist. Some technology experts believe that virus writers aren't interested in going after less common devices yet.

"Most hackers and virus writers that are trying to use your assets will program for the common denominator," Smarthome's Cregg said. "For computers, they program for Internet Explorer, not Apple's browser. Likewise, there are not that many people on non-PC platforms to make development worth it."

David Emm, a senior technology consultant with Russian antivirus specialist Kaspersky Labs, was asked by one of his company's customers to investigate the possibility of infecting a Lexus. Though the

 

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