Spyware Infects Phones, Adware Increases on Home PCs, Report Finds

Android malware has declined, but an increasing number of malicious apps are spyware. At the same time, adware increasingly affects home PCs.

mobile security

Security firms continue to warn smartphone users of the digital dangers of mobile malware, adware and spyware, but ironically, almost 80 percent of infected devices on mobile networks are tethered Windows laptops, not phones or tablets, network-security firm Alcatel-Lucent said on Sept. 16.

The company's Motive Security Labs found that the proportion of mobile-network-connected devices showing signs of infection climbed slightly to 0.75 percent at the end of June. The fraction of those devices that were smartphones, however, declined in the first half of 2015 to 0.15 percent from about 0.30 percent in January, the report stated. Infected Windows computers, mostly laptops, are responsible for the increase, said Kevin McNamee, director of Motive Security Labs at Alcatel-Lucent.

"Windows infections in the mobile network increased substantially," he said. "More people are using the mobile network as their preferred method of connecting to the Internet."

The threat that malware poses to mobile devices has been increasingly subject to debate. Although some mobile-security providers point to double-digit infection rates among devices in some countries, such as India, China and Russia, the gated software ecosystems on smartphones and tablets has made infecting them more difficult. However, widespread vulnerabilities, such as the Stagefright flaw, could change the threat landscape for mobile users.

Currently, mobile users' biggest worry is not some criminal group in another country, but much closer to home: Spyware installed by a spouse or co-worker. Mobile spyware accounted for 10 of the top 25 most prevalent malicious programs and a third of infected mobile devices sending traffic to the Internet, according to Alcatel-Lucent's data.

"With the modern smart phone, it is the perfect platform to compromise if you want to know where someone is," McNamee said. "It is a green-field opportunity for the malware industry."

For home users, malware, adware and spyware malware continues to be a problem, affecting 15.7 percent of residences by the end of the first quarter, declining to 13.1 percent by the end of the second quarter. The number of serious infections, such as programs that empty victims' bank accounts or hold their data for ransom, accounted for 43 percent of all compromised devices on average.

While smartphones users have to worry more about spyware, adware increasingly affects computers and laptops. Most of the rise in infections over time is due to adware and other "moderate" threats, Alcatel-Lucent stated in the report. Twelve of the top 20 infectors for home computers are adware, the company stated.

While the company considers adware a moderate threat, the programs are getting more malicious, McNamee said.

"It is not just popping ads up anymore," he said. "The ads are often part of phishing attacks or [they redirect] the victim to places where there is fraudulent activity going on."

Robert Lemos

Robert Lemos

Robert Lemos is an award-winning freelance journalist who has covered information security, cybercrime and technology's impact on society for almost two decades. A former research engineer, he's...