It Came from Outer Space

Even my local radio station was warning listeners that it’s only a matter of time before a mobile phone virus finds its way on to a phone near you.

This news rather reminded me of an early Hollywood science fiction movie bought up to date but with the B-plot, involving sinister alien invaders, unchanged. Mass hysteria breaks out when first of all the phones are infected and then, with a final twist to the story, their owners become victims in turn. Of course, when you watch teenagers with their mobile phones today, the advanced symptoms of possession by the network are already visible and perhaps, as these ‘converged’ mobile devices become even more powerful, the temptation on the part of hackers to design the code that will trigger the first smartphone pandemic, will become irresistible’.

Today however, the threat of a phone worm or virus is a little exaggerated. The story that triggered last weeks news involved a worm program, nicknamed Cabir by Kapersky, the Moscow-based antivirus company. Cabir reportedly uses the Bluetooth wireless feature found in smart phones that run the Symbian operating system, like my own Sony Ericsson P900, to detect other Symbian phones, and then transfers itself, over an automatically established Bluetooth connection to the new host as a package file.

Now that’s interesting, if only because anyone sensible should already have Bluetooth turned firmly off on their mobile phones, the very first thing I chose to do when my new one was delivered this month and not because I was worried by worms or viruses but because Bluetooth leaves your phone wide open to other curious users, who might wish to share your address book or more, uninvited.

Although it exploits what I would describe as the weak trust-based model that supports Symbian phones, it appears that Cabir, described as a ‘Concept exercise’, has only managed to replicate itself in laboratory conditions, so the technology has some distance to go before we need to start worrying over a mobile phone equivalent of last summer’s Blaster virus.

Unfortunately however, once the concept has been posted to the appropriate underworld newsgroups, it’s only a matter of time before somebody comes-up with a new version that may be a little more resilient and destructive. This is another side of the ‘Open Source’ computing model that we don’t think much about enough and which involves a global and frequently collaborative effort on the part of hacker groups to create new and interesting ways of introducing anarchy into the digital infrastructure of the modern world that surrounds us.

It’s almost twenty years since I was first given a demonstration of computer viruses that could attack an IBM PC. Passed around on floppy disks in the very early days of the local area network, they didn’t seem that threatening and when I ran a conference in London to discuss their future, it was a niche interest event that few people took seriously. Today, we’re a little more sanguine about malicious code and perhaps, like worries over global warning, fuel prices, interest rates and England’s chances in Euro 2004, we could squeeze in a little thought for the future security of man’s best friend, his mobile phone.


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