Beware of Airborne Evil

Viruses that target mobile devices have surfaced only rarely - but that's about to change.

Viruses that target mobile devices have surfaced only rarely — but thats about to change.

As more people use cell phones and handheld computers to access corporate information, the potential for malicious code to spread rapidly to those devices is expected to increase dramatically. Industry experts point to the way pervasive Internet connectivity changed the pattern of virus infections: In 1996, about 75 percent of viruses were distributed by floppy disk, said Bob Hansmann, enterprise product manager of antivirus software vendor Trend Micro. Today, 87 percent of viruses spread via e-mail.

"Five years from today, Im willing to bet, wireless will be a significant contributor to the way [viruses] spread," Hansmann said.

Wireless connections can help viruses disseminate more quickly than ever. "The worry is, with a wireless device, its always on. That means I can get data even when Im sleeping," said Steve Gottwals, director of product marketing of F-Secure, another antivirus software company. In contrast, a PC virus such as the "Love Letter" virus isnt actually received until a user turns on the computer and connects to the Internet.

Antivirus experts expect that viruses will be spread through the many different types of wireless connections that are growing increasingly common. For example, a handheld computer could catch a virus from a wireless wide area network, then pass it to a Bluetooth-enabled printer in a corporation. That printer could then infect another personal digital assistant (PDA), which could in turn spread the virus to PCs and other connected devices via a wireless local area network.

Although the threat of wireless viruses may be low today — to date, researchers have identified fewer than a dozen viruses aimed at mobile devices, compared with more than 50,000 PC viruses — several companies have already created products aimed at stopping them.

F-Secure and both sell antivirus software for Palm devices that can be updated when users synch their devices with their PCs. Trend Micro, meanwhile, focuses primarily on stopping viruses at the servers, before they reach the mobile devices.

So far, however, managing mobile security hasnt been a priority for most corporate administrators. "Some of our larger customers dont have an idea of what PC is updated with the latest technology, never mind which PDA is," said Vincent Gullotto, McAfees senior director of virus research.

McAfee is enhancing its antivirus management software to help administrators identify users who have PDAs that they synch with their PCs. Still, such a product wont be able to track the PDAs when users take them mobile, nor can it track visitors to a corporate campus that could infect systems via their wireless devices.

U.S. users should have one advantage over companies overseas: By the time wireless devices are widespread enough to cause virus trouble here, systems operators in Europe and Asia should have already figured out how to minimize their impact.