Computer viruses: coming soon to a phone near you

by Juliette Crane

Already computer virus-weary students are being warned to keep an eye on new devices — their cell phones.
Earlier this month, several people in Spain were surprised to find a text message on their mobile phones protesting the policies of the Spanish telecommunications operator Telefonica. The message did not do damage to the wireless devices, but was spread as an e-mail attachment from a computer.
Once opened, it was instantly sent to everyone in the computer owner’s address book. The cycle then repeated itself over and over again, until the worm eventually found its way into a Spanish phone gateway, targeting cell phones.
Such viruses are not likely to spread in the United States though, said John Ladwig, a security architect with the University’s telecommunications service department.
“We’re dealing with an entirely different animal over there,” he said.
Global System for Mobile Communications, the most widely accepted mobile network in Europe, has radically different security standards. Cell phones running from a network in the Unites States will not work in Europe unless they are connected to GSM, he said.
Nokia, one of the few cell phone distributors to offer the GSM connection, is a pioneer in the development of mobile Internet technology. A security management representative from the company stressed there is no cause for concern.
In the United States, there are more than 15 million different networks for consumers to connect to, while GSM is the standard in Europe.
“My guess is that the people who were affected by the bug had some rinky-dink service provider, without a back-end security system,” Ladwig said.
All Nokia mobile devices in Europe and the United States are encrypted before they go out to retailers, so they already have a back-end security system. However, if consumers are concerned, the company recommends a wireless application protocol software kit to attach directly to the mobile phone for additional security.
Still, while mobile device security might not be an issue now, it could be an issue in the future.
Security experts believe the Telefonica message started in Spain, and is the first of its kind. However, a similar phone virus affected 9-1-1 systems in Texas earlier this year. And during the ‘I Love You’ virus rampage earlier this year, some fax machines began spitting out harmless pages of code, CNET reported.
The fax machine phone numbers were directly linked to e-mail address books already corrupted by the virus.
As more phones become programmable and capable of connecting to the Internet, there will be more opportunities for computer viruses to generate in mobile devices.

Juliette Crane covers technology and welcomes comments at [email protected].