Cellphones Largely Immune to Viruses, for Now
It has been great using smartphones as de facto computers. You don’t have to buy antivirus software or worry about the devices going haywire every time some Ukrainian crime ring finds a new way to steal data from the cloud.
Which is why you could almost hear a sigh of exasperation from the geekier layers of the mobile industry late last month when they heard about hackers finding a way to break into iPhones and remotely control every aspect of the device.
It appears, however, that the worry-free ride will continue, at least in the near future, and not just because Apple quickly circulated a software patch to plug the vulnerability. Rather, for their extended peace of mind, users can credit the more tightly controlled — some would say strangulated — structure of the mobile phone industry in the United States. They can also credit some sheer dumb luck.
Such luck is familiar to users of Apple computers. The machines, though loved by those who buy them, have never caught on around the world. That lack of market share was a protection; virus writers can’t be bothered writing malicious code for so few targets.
The iPhone is in the same boat. As strange as it may sound in a country where so many people have these devices you would think they were given away in Cracker Jack boxes, iPhones worldwide barely register. Instead, it is Nokia mobile phones, running Symbian software, that reign supreme nearly everywhere except the United States.
So while thousands of law-abiding software developers are diligently building apps to clutter your iPhone or BlackBerry, the black hats taking aim at phones have already found their targets and they don’t include North America. At least not yet.
Just ask the people who are notorious for revving up consumers’ fears about computer security — namely, the makers of antivirus software. “The likelihood of getting hit by mobile malware is almost nonexistent,” said Mikko H. Hyppönen, the chief research officer at F-Secure, which writes software to detect and remove viruses from desktop and mobile devices.
The company, he said, has found and analyzed 490 mobile viruses in the last five years. In that same period, more than two million viruses were made for Windows computers. And those few mobile attacks were noteworthy for the fact that they were so, well, juvenile. They didn’t involve hacking for financial or personal data. “They’re done by hobbyists,” Mr. Hyppönen said. “Stupid attacks to leave funny displays.”
So even if a few hackers are focused on Nokias, users of such devices are not likely to be deeply affected.
Mr. Hyppönen said the worry-free nature of the wireless world could well change, of course, since criminals could richly profit from successful mobile intrusions. If they break into a phone and direct it to make calls to toll lines like 900 numbers, that’s big money for the owners of those 900 numbers.
To do that, though, they would have to overcome another advantage mobile devices enjoy over desktop machines — the wireless carriers and device makers. While PC manufacturers have no control over what people put on their computers, that is generally not true for device makers and wireless carriers.
Most carriers do their own filtering for spam and content that could lead you to download malware before data reaches your phone via text messages. Meanwhile, mobile software shops — like the Research in Motion App World for BlackBerrys, the Apple App Store, the Nokia Ovi Store and the application stores of the various wireless operators — test and approve programs before selling them.
Windows Mobile and Android apps are a bit of a murkier story.
Google, whose Android software runs the newest generation of smartphones like the G1 and the new myTouch 3G, both from T-Mobile, said consumers must rely on user feedback to determine whether to trust a software maker. That leaves some risk, since newer apps in Android’s “Market” will have too little feedback for it to be of real use.
When the Windows Mobile Marketplace — Microsoft’s answer to Apple’s App Store — has its debut this fall, certification protections will be in place, the company said.
Until then, owners of Windows devices would do well to seek out software add-ons from reputable sources like Handmark, Handango or Best Buy. (These outlets also sell applications that have been tested and certified by BlackBerry and Nokia, among others.)
Of course, even walled gardens like Apple’s App Store are not always perfect, as the latest iPhone dust-up demonstrated. Apple’s critics said the vulnerability would have existed for weeks had hackers not alerted the company before they announced their discovery.
Apple declined to comment, beyond asserting that no owner was victimized by the vulnerability. Which brings up the $24.95 question: will security-anxious consumers gain much by buying antivirus software for their phones?
Of the major wireless carriers, only Verizon Wireless recommends it. Like other wireless companies, though, Verizon suggests some common-sense precautions. For instance, don’t respond to e-mail or text messages from strangers. Don’t click on links inside messages unless you’re certain they’re trustworthy.
Likewise, don’t lend the phone to someone whose frontal lobe isn’t yet developed enough to take these precautions. (And if that rule sounds like it was directed at my children, it was.)
Finally, find your phone’s “software update” button and use it, because wireless companies will regularly issue updates to snag spammers or hackers, among other things.
Wireless companies are a bit controlling when it comes to so many aspects of the cellphone experience. In this respect, at least, that stranglehold might for once resemble a warm embrace.
Android phones on T-Mobile have fewer apps available than BlackBerrys and the iPhone, but useful software continues to flow onto the platform. TeleNav last week released its turn-by-turn navigation app for the myTouch 3G, the latest “Google phone.” Speak the address you want, and it does the rest ($10 a month, or $100 a year). … Fantasy football season is about to start, and iPhone apps are warming up for the task. Fantasy Football Cheatsheet ’09 ($2) offers player news, depth charts, 2008 statistics and advanced filtering and search. … Samsung fans have a pair of new phones to choose from. The Solstice, on AT&T ($150 with two-year contract), is a touch-screen device with video and audio streaming and preloaded games. The Reclaim, on Sprint, is aimed at the environmentally conscious texting crowd. Samsung claims that 80 percent of its materials are recyclable. It costs $50 with a two-year contract and a $50 mail-in rebate, and goes on sale Saturday.