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iPhone anti-malware stuck in state of denial

Not needed, says Apple. Won't run, say developers

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The blaze of publicity that accompanied the release of the first iPhone worms this month has sparked interest in selling anti-malware products for the device. However no such security products currently exist and Apple shows little inclination in licensing any that do get developed.

Antivirus products for Symbian smartphones have been available for years, but not one antivirus product is available for the iPhone, from any vendor. Releasing such tools would require the help of Apple, which tightly controls what applications are licensed to run on the devices via its successful AppStore marketplace.

But since both the ikee (Rickrolling) and Duh worms affect only jailbroken iPhones (with SSH open and default passwords) the line from Apple is that there's no need for anti-malware for iPhones.

Intego, which has carved out a successful niche marketing anti-malware software for Mac machines, is yet to produce any security software for the iPhone. As well as getting approval from Apple to develop such software, developing security software for the devices poses technical challenges.

"Apple does not allow applications to run in the background on the iPhone, which makes any antivirus or anti-malware software less than optimal," Peter James, an Intego spokesman explained. "To be effective anti-malware needs to run all the time. The same is true of personal firewall software."

James explains that iPhones use a stripped down version of Mac OS X. Although Apple restricts third-party developers from running background processes, not unreasonably because the processing power of the chips on iPhones is limited, Apple system processes including DNS name resolution and clock functions do run in the background, so the restriction isn't absolute.

The practical upshot of Apple's third-party restrictions is that any anti-malware product for an iPhone could not be designed to run constantly in the background, warning about incoming threats. Instead the software could only be used to do either scheduled or on-demand scans.

Graham Cluley, a senior security consultant at Sophos, which offers antivirus products for corporate Macs, explained that the hands of security firms looking to provide protection against the Duh worm and future iPhone malware threats are caught in a bind. Only Apple can untangle this confusion, however it has little incentive to shift its line.

"It's feasible for Sophos to write an application that scans an iPhone for the Duh worm (we detect it as Iph/Duh on other platforms) however the app would obviously have to be approved by Apple to enter their AppStore. I'm not sure how long that process would take, or if it would be approved."

"The only alternative - ironically - would be for us to make it available as an unauthorised app, meaning that iPhone users would have to jailbreak their iPhones to scan them for security problems. This is obviously not ideal," he added.

Mikko Hypponen, chief research officer at F-Secure, criticised Apple for failing to tackle the nascent mobile malware problem more proactively. He contrasts Apple's stance with the more go-ahead attitude of other smartphone manufacturers that rely on the Symbian platform - such as Sony Ericsson - in a blog posting here. ®

Bootnote

Trend Micro has a browser add-on called SmartSurf, available via Apple's AppStore, to protect iPhone users from malicious websites. Cisco has a security dashboard product targeted at iPhone users, tasked with looking after corporate security on enterprise networks. However nether of these are anti-malware products for the iPhone, which remain a glint in the eye of anti-virus developers and (doubtless) the marketing departments of security firms.

Mobile application security vulnerability report

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