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Smartphones ripe for non-viral attack, claims Symantec

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Security attacks on smartphones have taken off this year, but many have gone unnoticed because they were not the familiar virus or Trojan attacks that grab headlines, according to a senior Symantec exec.

Paul Miller, the boss of Symantec's wireless & mobile security group, said that although there have been Bluetooth-enabled viruses, attacks on mobile phones have shifted to target telephony-specific features.

He highlighted spyware that sends premium SMS messages, and 'snoopware' - software such as Flexspy which can remotely activates the handset's microphone or camera to spy on its owner.

He added that, in parallel with the malware trends on PCs, attacks on phones are shifting from pranks and vandalism towards financial gain - he included spying here, as it could be used for industrial espionage.

"When we started seeing crimeware this year, we knew it's for profit now, not for fun," he said. "Mobile devices are like PCs in many ways, but they also face new threats."

There's a number of reasons why phones are being targeted, he said: "First, your mobile phone is always with you, and where many people will have a laptop for work and another PC for home, most will only have one phone for both.

"Plus, operating systems on mobile phones lag those on PCs by six years - and hackers attack the weakest link."

The problem can only grow. Mobile phones will out-ship PCs by five to one this year, and are far more likely to be lost or stolen, according to statistics quoted by Symantec. Smartphones are in turn the fastest growing category of phone, with sales growing 77 per cent a year compared to 27 per cent overall.

Conversely, Symantec's stats show that while 80 per cent of companies allow corporate data on handheld devices, only 25 per cent have so far addressed smartphone security.

Miller claimed he was keen not to hype the problem up though, and added that it's not going to affect all mobile phone users - ordinary phones are much less of an issue than smartphones, for instance.

"But any computer attached to a network needs AV, and a smartphone is a computer," he said, adding that IT staff need to target perhaps the top 5% of their users for additional defensive software such as firewalls and encryption, because they will be the senior execs and salespeople who keep critical business data on their phones.

"Attacks are more targeted now," he said. "You don't attack a factory worker, you put snoopware onto the CEO or CTO." ®

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