LAS VEGAS — Hackers are out to stymie your smartphone. Security researchers recently uncovered yet another strain of malicious software aimed at smartphones that run Google's popular Android operating system. The application not only logs details about incoming and outgoing phone calls; it also records those calls.
That came a month after researchers discovered a security hole in Apple Inc.'s iPhones, which prompted the German government to warn Apple about the urgency of the threat.
Security experts say attacks on smartphones are growing fast — and attackers are becoming smarter about developing new
“We're in the experimental stage of mobile malware where the bad guys are starting to develop their business models,” said Kevin Mahaffey, co-founder of Lookout Inc., a San Francisco-based maker of mobile security software.
Wrong-doers have infected PCs with malicious software, or malware, for decades. Now, they are fast moving to smartphones as the devices become a vital part of everyday life.
Some 38 percent of American adults now own an iPhone, BlackBerry or other mobile phone that runs the Android, Windows or WebOS operating systems, according to data from Nielsen. That's up from just six percent who owned a smartphone in 2007 when the iPhone was released and catalyzed the industry. The smartphone's usefulness, allowing people to organize their digital lives with one device, is also its allure to criminals.
All at once, smartphones have become wallets, e-mail lockboxes, photo albums and Rolodexes. And because owners are directly billed for services bought with smartphones, they open up new angles for financial attacks. The worst programs cause a phone to rack up unwanted service charges, record calls, intercept text messages and even dump emails, photos and other private content directly onto criminals' servers.
Evidence of this hacker invasion is starting to emerge.
• Lookout says it now detects thousands of attempted infections each day on mobile phones running its security software. In January, there were just a few hundred detections a day. The number of detections is nearly doubling every few months. As many as one million people were hit by mobile malware in the first half of 2011.
• Google Inc. has removed about 100 malicious applications from its Android Market app store. One particularly harmful app was downloaded more than 260,000 times before it was removed. Android is the world's most popular smartphone operating software, with more than 135 million users worldwide.
• Symantec Corp., the world's biggest security software maker, is also seeing a jump. Last year, the company identified just five examples of malware unique to Android. So far this year, it's seen 19. Of course, that number pales compared with the hundreds of thousands of new strains targeting PCs every year but experts say it's only a matter of time before criminals catch up.
“Bad guys go where the money is,” said Charlie Miller, principal research consultant with the Accuvant Inc. security firm and a prominent hacker of mobile devices. “As more and more people use phones and keep data on phones, and PCs aren't as relevant, the bad guys are going to follow that. The bad guys are smart. They know when it makes sense to switch.”
When it comes to security, smartphones share a problem with PCs: Infections are typically the responsibility of the user to fix, if the problem is discovered at all.
Malicious applications often masquerade as legitimate ones, such as games, calculators or pornographic photos and videos. They can appear in advertising links inside other applications. Their moneymaking schemes include new approaches that are impossible on PCs.
One recent malicious app secretly subscribed victims up to a service that sends quizzes via text message. The pay service was charged to the victims' phone bills, which is presumably how the criminals got paid. They may have created the service or been hired by the creator to sign people up. Since malware can intercept text messages, it's likely the victims never saw the messages, just the charges.
A different piece of malware logs a person's incoming text messages and replies to them with spam and malicious links. Most mobile malware, however, keep their intentions hidden. Some apps set up a connection between the phone and a server under a criminal's control which is used to send instructions.