Your smartphone: a new frontier for hackers

Associated Press Modified: August 7, 2011 at 8:00 am •  Published: August 7, 2011
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LAS VEGAS (AP) — Hackers are out to stymie your smartphone.

Last week, security researchers uncovered yet another strain of malicious software aimed at smartphones that run Google's popular Android operating system. The application not only logs details about incoming and outgoing phone calls, it also records those calls.

That came a month after researchers discovered a security hole in Apple Inc.'s iPhones, which prompted the German government to warn Apple about the urgency of the threat.

Security experts say attacks on smartphones are growing fast — and attackers are becoming smarter about developing new techniques.

"We're in the experimental stage of mobile malware where the bad guys are starting to develop their business models," said Kevin Mahaffey, co-founder of Lookout Inc., a San Francisco-based maker of mobile security software.

Wrong-doers have infected PCs with malicious software, or malware, for decades. Now, they are fast moving to smartphones as the devices become a vital part of everyday life.

Some 38 percent of American adults now own an iPhone, BlackBerry or other mobile phone that runs the Android, Windows or WebOS operating systems, according to data from Nielsen. That's up from just 6 percent who owned a smartphone in 2007 when the iPhone was released and catalyzed the industry. The smartphone's usefulness, allowing people to organize their digital lives with one device, is also its allure to criminals.

All at once, smartphones have become wallets, email lockboxes, photo albums and Rolodexes. And because owners are directly billed for services bought with smartphones, they open up new angles for financial attacks. The worst programs cause a phone to rack up unwanted service charges, record calls, intercept text messages and even dump emails, photos and other private content directly onto criminals' servers.

Evidence of this hacker invasion is starting to emerge.

— Lookout says it now detects thousands of attempted infections each day on mobile phones running its security software. In January, there were just a few hundred detections a day. The number of detections is nearly doubling every few months. As many as 1 million people were hit by mobile malware in the first half of 2011.

— Google Inc. has removed about 100 malicious applications from its Android Market app store. One particularly harmful app was downloaded more than 260,000 times before it was removed. Android is the world's most popular smartphone operating software with more than 135 million users worldwide.

— Symantec Corp., the world's biggest security software maker, is also seeing a jump. Last year, the company identified just five examples of malware unique to Android. So far this year, it's seen 19. Of course, that number pales compared with the hundreds of thousands of new strains targeting PCs every year, but experts say it's only a matter of time before criminals catch up.

"Bad guys go where the money is," said Charlie Miller, principal research consultant with the Accuvant Inc. security firm, and a prominent hacker of mobile devices. "As more and more people use phones and keep data on phones, and PCs aren't as relevant, the bad guys are going to follow that. The bad guys are smart. They know when it makes sense to switch."

When it comes to security, smartphones share a problem with PCs: Infections are typically the responsibility of the user to fix, if the problem is discovered at all.

The emergence in early July of a previously unknown security hole in Apple Inc.'s iPhones and iPads cast a spotlight on mobile security. Users downloaded a program that allowed them to run unauthorized programs on their devices. But the program could also be used to help criminals co-opt iPhones. Apple has since issued a fix.

It was the second time this year that the iPhone's security was called into question. In April the company changed its handling of location data after a privacy outcry that landed an executive in front of Congress. Researchers had discovered that iPhones stored the data for a year or more in unencrypted form, making them vulnerable to hacking. Apple CEO Steve Jobs emerged from medical leave to personally address the issue.

The iPhone gets outsize attention because it basically invented the consumer smartphone industry when it was introduced in 2007. But Apple doesn't license its software to other phone manufacturers. Google gives Android to phone makers for free. So, Android phones are growing faster. As a result, Google's Android Market is a crucial pathway for hacking attacks. The app store is a lightly curated online bazaar for applications that, unlike Apple's App Store, doesn't require that developers submit their programs for pre-approval.



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