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CONNECTED COMMENT (15/03/05)

 

For some time technology experts have been expressing fears that computer type viruses would one day find their way into mobile phones. Guess what? Over the past few weeks we’ve been receiving reports of a new electronic contagion affecting mobile phones in more than 16 countries around the world.

 

So far only two viruses have been found ‘in the wild’, others will surely follow, but for the moment at least only a small percentage of the world’s 1.5 billion mobile phone users appear to be at risk.

 

The current threats are known as Cabir, and CommWarrior.A. Cabir, in common with many PC viruses, originated in the Philippines whilst Cyrillic text displayed on mobiles infected with CommWarrior -- roughly translated as ‘no to braindeads’ -- suggests that it may be the handiwork of a Russian virus writer.

 

Mobile phone viruses hide inside files purporting to be games, pictures, video, audio and ringtone downloads. However, unlike most computer viruses, which can be installed without the owner’s knowledge or interaction, mobile phone viruses require the user to first accept a file onto their phone and then to ignore warning messages before opening the infected file, which activates the virus.

 

First generation viruses like Cabir travel via a Bluetooth wireless connection between the infected phone and its potential host. CommWarrior is a far more worrying prospect because it can also be carried in attachments to SMS (short message service) or MMS (multimedia messaging service) text and mail. By this means phone viruses can spread faster and over a much wider area, just like email viruses, theoretically infecting thousands if not millions of phones around the world in just a few hours.

 

Fortunately the vast majority of mobile phones have built-in immunity to this kind of virus attack simply because they are incapable of executing program code. Only ‘Smartphones’, which are basically pocketsize computers, are vulnerable, specifically models made by Nokia and Siemens that use the Symbian operating system.

 

Cabir doesn’t carry a malicious payload, though it rapidly drains the phone’s battery as it attempts to make contact with other Bluetooth mobiles in the vicinity. Apart from that the only other sign of an infection is the word ‘Caribe’ or ‘Caribe VZ29’ appearing on the phone’s LCD display panel. The virus can be removed manually by deleting files or by using a free removal tool that can be downloaded from Kaspersky Labs, the Russian anti-virus software company, which first identified it.

 

Once a phone has caught a dose of CommWarrior it spreads by sending copies of itself to contact numbers stored in the address book. The victim receives an SMS or MMS message with an attachment purporting to be a free game or ringtone and once opened the process is repeated. Again there is no actual danger to the phone and removal is fairly straightforward. CommWarrior files appear in the list of the phone’s applications and they can be deleted without too much trouble.

 

There’s no room for complacency, however, and within days of the first Caribe and CommWarrior infections new variants were being discovered as the code was distributed on websites frequented by the virus community. Virus writers have also been amusing themselves by taunting phone manufacturers by sending them ‘proof of concept’ demonstrations of their skills. One nasty little virus that has yet to be released, dubbed ‘Skull’ promises to replace all of the icons on a Smartphone’s display with tiny skull and crossbones emblems, rendering the device virtually useless.

 

If there is any good news then it is that present viral strains are unlikely to proliferate at anything like the speed of computer viruses. These exploit security loopholes in Microsoft Windows, used on the vast majority of PCs around the world. The diversity of today’s Smartphone operating systems makes life difficult for those developing new viruses, though news that Microsoft aims to repeat its success in the mobile phone market will undoubtedly raise a few eyebrows.

 

Hopefully some lessons have been learnt and in anticipation of an expected increase in the number of mobile phone viruses several manufacturers are including anti-virus software with their new models. Phone users are also going to have to learn to adopt new strategies, including never opening unexpected message attachments, no matter how enticing they appear to be. Sadly, though, as the popularity of Smartphones grows, and if past experience with computer viruses is anything to go by, mobile phone users could be in for a rough ride over the next few years.

 

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Ó R. Maybury 2005 1003

 

 

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