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Attack of the 50-foot mobile virus risk

Don't believe the hype - show us the malware

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Increased standardisation across mobile devices will make it easier for miscreants to write malicious code, a Gartner analyst has warned - but the familiar prediction overlooks a bigger threat.

The warning makes for a repeat of a long-standing anti-virus industry prediction that has yet to come to fruition. Meanwhile, the risks posed by sensitive data left on insecure mobile devices remains largely ignored.

Speaking at the opening day on the Gartner IT Security Summit in London on Monday, Gartner analyst John Girard said that increased standardisation across smart phones and mobile devices was making life easier for the bad guys. Advanced phones running the same OS used to have different implementations of mobile Java or different configurations, but Girard argued this is beginning to change, Computing reports.

"The more your phone gets like a PC, the more it can host malicious code or have its function altered by someone else," Girard said, adding that scam emails that form the basis of phishing attacks were likely to become more common on mobile platforms next year.

Gartner advises businesses to adopt device encryption and access controls, as well as insisting on a minimum set of security specifications in order to minimise possible risks.

Three years ago Girard and fellow Gartner analyst John Pescatore dismissed mobile malware as a "niche nuisance," until at least the end of 2007. It said that the conditions needed to spread mobile malware - a high penetration of smartphone and the routine exchange of executable files by mobiles - were yet to materialise.

At present, smartphone penetration hasn't reached the levels widely predicted. We'd add that expertise among virus writers about how to write mobile malware remains low - and since a handy profit can be turned from infecting PCs, the question arises of "why bother?".

Perhaps we've got a bit jaded from listening to at least ten years of predictions that mobile malware was going to be a multi-million pound problem next year or the year after. But the fact is that although Girard's argument scans well, he is rehashing a prediction that has failed to come to fruition time and time again.

It's true that mobile devices are becoming more sophisticated and commonplace both in business and at the home. Enterprises are struggling to cope with the trend of people using their own devices at work. The most immediate problem is not mobile malware, but sensitive data on lost or second-hand devices.

A recent survey by BT, the University of Glamorgan, and Edith Cowan University, Australia found that one in five second-hand devices contained potentially sensitive corporate and personal information, the BBC reports. The Guardian adds how the insecure disposed BlackBerry of a company director came back to haunt him after business plans on the device were exposed.

The issue is getting worse as the sophistication of mobile devices increases, which means that they store more data, while awareness of how to securely dispose of mobile kit remains low.

"Our work suggest that all so called 'smart phones' especially with web access in effect store a complete user profile," said Jon Godfrey, director of Sims Lifecycle Services, a firm that securely recycles mobiles, to the Reg. "When one looks at the pure volume of data on such personal devices and the user’s ignorance of the value of the data, this is a huge issue." ®

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