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Virus threat spreads to wireless
(IDG) -- Users of wireless devices face increased vulnerability to virus attacks as the gadgets get smarter, more powerful and more popular. That wake-up call was delivered by a cellular phone virus reported in Spain last week, according to network security specialists.
A new chain e-mail virus, similar to the Love Bug virus that plagued PC users worldwide last month, surfaced last week in the wireless network operated by Madrid-based Telefonica SA, according to F-Secure Corp., an Espoo, Finland-based antivirus company. F-Secure said that the Spanish virus replicated much like the Love Bug, which sent messages out to PCs. But the new virus instead sent messages to randomly dialed numbers on mobile data phones operating on the European Global System for Mobile Communications standard.
Although Telefonica said it had "no knowledge of the existence of such a virus," researchers at laboratories operated by both AT&T Corp. and IBM independently confirmed its existence. They also warned of the potential of even more serious assaults on the booming global wireless infrastructure, which will support 2 billion mobile users worldwide by 2003, up from 400 million at the end of last year, according to Schaumburg, Ill.-based Motorola Inc.
David Chess, a member of the research staff at IBM's Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., said that as smarter devices such as handheld computers from Santa Clara, Calif.-based Palm Inc. get hooked into wireless networks, the potential danger from viruses will increase.
"There's no way to get a program to (existing) cell phones. But when you get more powerful machines that can be programmed, the closer you get to the edge of vulnerability," he said. "And the more networked (smart devices) become, the greater the threat of attack."
Steven Bellovin, a network security researcher at AT&T Laboratories in Florham Park, N.J., said that "there was nothing surprising" about the so-called Timfonica virus, since it was based on "standard hacker tools. . . . This is a very easy thing to do."
Devices such as the PalmPilot currently lack any defense against this kind of attack, Bellovin said.
"The Palm was not built to defend against hostile programs. It was built on programs that trust one another," he said.
A spokesman for Palm said last week that the company hadn't received any reports of viruses on its products. "Even if a virus did exist, the distribution would be much more limited than a PC virus, based on the way the Palm OS works," the spokesman said.
"We understand, though, that any electronic platform can be susceptible to the hackers who create viruses, and we and our partners are already taking steps to ensure that any attempts at viruses on Palm handhelds are intercepted and avoided to the best extent possible," he added.
Ken Dulaney, a mobile computing analyst at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Group Inc., said mobile device viruses pose an even greater threat to enterprise computing systems than to PCs because of the sheer number of wireless devices that could be hooked into corporate information systems.
That point isn't lost on users.
Tom Zywicki, director of systems development at Seattle-based Airborne Freight Corp., which is in the process of rolling out a nationwide wireless data network, said he has concerns about any virus that could disrupt operation of the company's dispatch system. Zywicki said he would like to see antivirus security built into the wireless dispatch network for Airborne's drivers.
U.S. wireless carriers increased their vigilance against viruses last week, though they refused to provide specifics.
AT&T Wireless Services Inc. in Redmond, Wash., beefed up its virus countermeasures in the wake of the Timfonica virus, according to a spokesman, who declined to provide any details because of security concerns.
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