Mobile phone malware in our future?

VeriSign CTO cites the popularity of faster, smarter phones and the lack of native applications on them as possible reasons for malware to target mobile phones in 2009.

Robert Vamosi Former Editor
As CNET's former resident security expert, Robert Vamosi has been interviewed on the BBC, CNN, MSNBC, and other outlets to share his knowledge about the latest online threats and to offer advice on personal and corporate security.
Robert Vamosi
2 min read

Last week, a new report (PDF) on emerging threats from the Georgia Tech Information Security Center mentioned, among other predictions, that botnets were likely to hit mobile phones sometime in the next year. On Tuesday, I spoke with VeriSign CTO Ken Silva about that possibility and why it might happen within the coming year.

"Criminals will go where the money is," Silva told CNET News. "If you start doing things of financial interest with your mobile phone, they will find a way to get your money."

Silva said the mobile phone market is changing. Today's mobile phones don't just make phone calls, they stream video and support content. "Most consumers did not care about a smartphone until Windows Mobile, the Apple iPhone, and now Google Android came along. Now more and more consumers want smartphones. Kids want them; it's a cool phone to have."

Silva said that smartphones tend to use either Java-based Blackberry OS, Mac OS, or Windows Mobile OS as platforms, and it is this standardization of operating systems that should make it easier for criminals to target their victims. The way mobile users browse the Web already is standardizing. With Windows Mobile you have Internet Explorer, and on Apple's iPhone you have Safari. Both of these browsers have vulnerabilities that can be exploited, although not always on the mobile version.

Another compelling reason to think malware is coming soon to your smartphone is more bandwidth. Because of the streaming media options, this year's phones process data much faster than last year's models.

One possible malware vector might be new application downloads. "People are thirsty for applications to run on their devices," Silva said. "Despite the fact Apple has gone to great lengths to make sure the applications are signed (and) have gone through a vetting process, users continue to break their iPhone and install software outside the channel."

Silva doesn't, however, think denial-of-service (DoS) attacks will be the first choice of botnets operating on mobile phones. For one thing, DoS attacks require always-on computers, and mobile devices are not always on or connected to the Internet.

He ranks DoS attacks second behind data theft. "These smartphones now have e-mail on them--and also corporate e-mail on them. We're doing more personal transactions with them." Silva thinks it's the rise of mobile payments and the popularity of banking on mobile phones in Europe and Asia that are leading malware to the mobile phone.

"If we've learned nothing else from the desktop, we should have learned that software needs to be secure right from the get-go." We have opportunity on the mobile platform to write secure code, he said, knowing what has happened on the desktop.

As for the currently status of botnets operating on mobile phones: "Definitely theoretical." But Silva adds, "Someone--just to prove the point--will develop a toolkit to do it." So it's never too early to be thinking about this problem.