Mobile malware reality check

Smartphone malware isn’t yet as big a threat as you might think, but it’s coming. Here are some tips to help you avoid it.

Malicious software is leaping from PCs to cell phones, as malware makers target the platform in hopes of making a quick buck. Examples include the infected Droid­Dream and Plankton Android apps. An infected app released into the Android Market can infect several thousand users’ phones before anyone discovers the presence of the malware. Though the extent of Android malware has been overstated, it's best to learn now how to protect yourself and your data from attacks, instead of waiting until mobile malware becomes a more serious problem.

In the DroidDream incident, several thousand people downloaded software infected with a Trojan horse that rooted their phone and sent data such as the user’s location and phone number to a remote server. That same day, Google killed the contaminated apps in the Android Market, wiped the apps from phones remotely, and issued an update to patch and re­­pair the damage that the DroidDream Trojan horse had done.

Because of how Android apps are built, a malware writer can disassemble a popular app, repackage it with malware, and reupload it to the Android Market with a slightly different title. Nevertheless, we’ve yet to see any mobile malware infestations or threats on the scale of desktop PC problems.

Thus far, all of the reported mobile malware incidents have been small, isolated outbreaks that malware fighters have patched or identified within several hours of their appearance. According to Sy­­mantec, it’s still early in the smartphone malware game; and though the threat may seem overblown today, outbreaks are nevertheless very likely to increase in the future.

Threats to Watch Out For

Malware makers favor Android because it is an open platform that allows users to load custom applications onto their de­­vices. But other mobile gadgets are at risk of malware, too.

In its closed app ecosystem, Apple screens apps to ensure that they don’t contain objectionable content. But Apple does not check every bit in every app submitted to the App Store, leaving open the possibility that programmers might successfully sneak malicious code into an app.

In July 2010, an app called Handy Light passed Apple’s screening process and appeared in the App Store. Though Handy Light looked like a simple flashlight app, it contained a hidden unofficial tethering function that let users treat their iPhones as cellular modems (at the time, AT&T was the sole iPhone carrier in the US, and it did not offer a tethering option). Handy Light wasn’t malicious, but it showed that no vetting system is entirely safe.

Most of the mobile malware we’ve encountered so far has taken the form of infected apps on the Android platform. For a phone to become infected, its user must install the compromised app; it isn’t vulnerable to drive-by downloads and other infection methods, as PCs are. That situation may change as time passes and legions of malware makers begin to target other smartphone operating systems.

Ultimately, it’s up to users to make the right decisions when choosing where to download apps and which apps to in­­stall. In June of this year, McAfee Labs released a report stating that alternative third-party app stores— unofficial app markets not sanctioned by Google or Apple—had more malware on average than the official markets. The Gemini Trojan for Android, for example, was distributed exclusively through third-party app stores in China.

How to Protect Yourself

The safest course is to avoid apps that you’ve never heard of and to research apps and their publishers thoroughly before pressing the Download button. When you install an app, you’ll see a list of permissions for services that the app can access on your device. But an alarm clock app, say, probably shouldn’t need to access your contacts. If something in the permissions screen looks fishy, just don’t download the app.

You should also be wary of what you click (or tap) while browsing the Web. In late June, mobile security company Lookout discovered malicious advertisements aimed at smartphone users and designed to trick them into installing infected apps. Some types of mobile antivirus software, like Lookout Mobile Security, have features intended to protect you from phishing attacks like these.

If possible, install antivirus software on your phone. Most big-name security companies like AVG, McAfee, and Sy­­mantec have a downloadable mobile app for protecting your phone. Besides guarding against malware, these apps have such features as the ability to lock and wipe your phone remotely. When you receive a new phone, it’s a good idea to install an antivirus program before you add any other apps. That way, your phone will be better protected against malware from the get-go.

At least for the moment, smartphone malware is relatively easy to avoid; but being aware that it exists is the first step toward protecting yourself and your data from falling victim to it.

<<CAPTION: Smartphone security software from Symantec (left) and Lookout can help protect mobile devices from malware infection.>>

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