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A free software program released Thursday turns everyday BlackBerry smartphones into remote bugging devices.

Dubbed PhoneSnoop by creator Sheran Gunasekera, the software sits quietly on a targeted BlackBerry and monitors the phone number of each incoming call. When it detects a number set up in the program's preferences section, it silently turns on the speakerphone, allowing an attacker to monitor all conversations within earshot of the device.

Although programs such as FlexiSPY have long claimed to do much the same thing, Gunasekera said he believes PhoneSnoop is the first software to bring those capabilities to the BlackBerry free of charge.

"What I wanted to do was bring some awareness to this problem, so I'm releasing it pretty much for free and trying to show them that this can be done," said Gunasekera, who is director of security for Hermis Consulting in Jakarta, Indonesia. "It's not well known that these threats exist."

Gunasekera said he was inspired to write PhoneSnoop after witnessing an attempt in July by United Arab Emirates mobile operator Etisalat to sneak snooping software onto customers' Blackberry handsets. Subscribers reported receiving an SMS message from the carrier instructing them to install an official patch.

An analysis and reverse engineering of the update made it clear that the update installed a program that had the ability to forward all outgoing emails to a server under Etisalat's control, Gunasekera said. He added that it's not known if the spyware was ever activated. Because the software cloaked itself from users, it may never have been discovered were it not for a bug that drained batteries in as little as 30 minutes.

The carrier denied the software spied on its customers, but even BlackBerry maker Research in Motion warned users of the SMS message and took the unusual step of offering an application that removed the Etisalat software.

Unlike FlexiSPY and the spyware that was installed on Etisalat customers' handsets, PhoneSnoop doesn't try to hide itself. But Gunasekera said it would be trivial for him to modify the program to hide all its processes and icons from casual users. He plans to release a free utility in a week or two that will make it easy for users to list all software and processes running on their BlackBerries.

PhoneSnoop complements a previous program Gunasekera released at this month's Hack in the Box security conference that silently forwards emails to an attacker. Eventually, he plans to release companion software that will forward all SMS messages and monitor a user's location using the BlackBerry's built-in GPS features.

Unlike Apple's iPhone and other smartphones, the BlackBerry hasn't suffered from known vulnerabilities over the past couple of years that would allow an attacker to remotely install snooping software onto the device. That means attackers need physical access to the device they want to bug or somehow trick its user into installing it.

But those scenarios are by no means out of the question, as Etisalat customers know all too well. ®

Update

A RIM spokesman responds:

"Security has always been, and continues to be, a core part of the BlackBerry solution. BlackBerry is widely recognized for the high level of security built into BlackBerry smartphones and, as this article points outs, this type of software relies on tricking an unsuspecting user into downloading, installing and running a malicious application."

Users should download apps only from trusted sources, he added.

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