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Cell Phone Viruses
June 27, 2000

Fast-spreading email viruses like Love Bug and Melissa are practically household names today. And the anti-virus industry is bracing for another inevitable epidemic. Experts expect the next generation of computer viruses to attack your phone, your house, and even your clothing.

Don’t phone home

The thought of a virus wiping out your cell phone’s memory or pirating your bank account is a sobering one and not something that most of us worry about. But experts are already concerned that devices like mobile phones can become vulnerable to computer viruses.

"Computer viruses are just software, they can do anything that software can do, so if a piece of software on your cell phone can dial Moscow and have a long conversation in your absence, then a computer virus can do that," says Steve White, senior manager of anti-virus research at IBM T.J. Watson Research Center. "If a piece of software on your digital assistant could dial up your bank account and spend your money, then a virus on your personal digital assistant could do that same thing."

Right now there aren’t any computer viruses that can move between wireless devices. Cell phones don’t exchange programs, so they can’t spread viruses. "But in the future, as the environment on your cell phone looks more like it does on your PC—maybe word processing programs, e-mail programs, other forms of communication—it’s going to be more and more possible to spread viruses via these mobile devices, and that’s what we have to watch out for," warns White.

Using hand-held device

"Fifty years from now, maybe 20 years from now, computing devices will be absolutely everywhere in absolutely everything," says White. "You won’t think of them as computers, you’ll think of them as the devices you use, the shoes you wear, the walls you interact with."

They’re here...

Scientists have already spotted what they say is the first virus to attack mobile phones via the Internet. A Russian anti-virus company called Kaspersky Labs found a virus dubbed "Timofonica" in Spain. The virus didn’t do much damage (it sent meaningless but annoying text messages to the mobile phones through the Spanish MoviStar mobile phone network website). But experts say if such a virus attacked a text messaging service that charged users per message, it could rack up huge bills. They believe "Timofonica" is a harbinger of things to come.

As new capabilities are introduced into our computing devices, White says the first challenge is to develop the systems so that they’re as safe as possible in the first place. "You often download programs without your knowing about it from a web server," he explains. "These often come in java applets. This is a nice safe environment—the program gets downloaded to your web browser, gets run on your web browser... but it can’t mess up your web browser. It can’t mess up your file system, it can’t spend your money, it can’t dial your telephone. Other ways of getting programs from web servers are fairly dangerous, they can do anything they want to on your computer. In moving to more pervasive computing devices, using java and the java environment is a really good idea."

Rapid response

Banks of computers
This is IBM’s "Immune System."

White says scientists foresaw the danger of e-mail computer viruses over a decade ago, when they came across one that mailed itself between mainframe computing systems, but they have been unable to stop them.

Only now is IBM deploying a rapid response against new viruses. "And it’s about time, because the email virus is getting to be bad," White adds. Called the "Immune System," White says it is now searching the worldwide web for new viruses, automatically crafting cures for them and spreading those cures all over the world faster than the virus itself can spread.

IBM plans to commercialize its Immune System with Symantec Corporation, makers of the Norton Anti-Virus software, according to White. "We anticipate that in the future it will be necessary to make this technology as pervasive as computing is," he says.

Virus fighters like White hope that deploying such systems now will prepare us for the inevitable wave of future viruses.

Elsewhere on the web:

Internet Chain Letters and Hoaxes from the Department of Energy’s Computer Incident Advisory Capability

Computer Virus Myths

European Institute for Computer Anti-virus Research

Mobile phone virus hoax

Report a virus attack

Virus Bulletin



by Jill Max


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