Smartphone viruses – Fact or Fiction?
I get the feeling that just because the news of major mobile virus outbreaks are not littering our newsfeeds this questions the reality for some people of the existence of any effective mobile viruses that experts have been warning us about. In fact it has been reported that there are currently over 40,000 viruses targeting the Android operating system today, and SMS phishing attacks have increased 300% every year. So why if there are so many viruses there is so little discussion on the impact that this is having on smartphone users today?
The first point to note is that the spread of viruses to mobile phones has moved more slowly than previous electronic threats. In a study conducted by Wang et al (2009) at Northeastern University they identified that at the time mobile phone viruses could spread through MMS and Bluetooth and they analysed the pattern of the spread of viruses through these two protocols. In their findings they found that viruses that spread through Bluetooth is spatially localised, similar to that of the common flu as it will only infect users who have Bluetooth activated phones within a distance from 10 to 30m and is restricted by human mobility patterns. As a result the spread is slow and this allows time to deploy anti-virus software or updates to the OS.
In comparison they found the MMS virus can spread very quickly infecting all users within 2 hours. These viruses usually embed themselves to messages that are sent to all the contacts within the users address book, the only benefit in slowing the spread of this virus is that it is limited to the users call graph and as the virus is targeted to a specific handset the fragmentation of handsets and operating systems at the time of this study meant that the number of phones that could be infected were reduced. But before you get too comfortable this study was conducted in 2009 and since then smartphone operating systems have become less fragmented and there are now other ways in which a virus can spread. Recently links to download viruses have been appearing in posts on Twitter and other social media platforms, through instant messaging as well as inside the apps that are downloaded onto the phone. Add to that the increased usage of hotspots and the new threat they call the “evil twins”, these are hotspots that mimic a legitimate hotspot. They trick users into connecting so they can steal data from the phone, view all the details of information being shared across the Wi Fi and direct them to malware or phishing sites.
Many security experts are unanimous in claiming that you cannot be safe with a modern day smartphone, the main reason being with the rush to bring new devices to market the manufacturers have left security low on the agenda. Just as Zeus has created havoc for Microsoft for many years the Zitmo virus is targeting Android operating systems, and it is rumoured to be linked to the same Russian author that crated the Zeus. The Android OS has been widely criticised for its vulnerability to viruses, being open source this means that poorly written software can unintentionally open up the phone. Many also claim antivirus will not give you complete protection based on the fact that the phones have been built so poorly. So in addition to having an effective antivirus installed on your phone staying protected means that each and every users must also develop effective usage habits around what they view and download, and thinking that there are no effective viruses targeting smartphones is just plain crazy!