Viruses may prove dangerous to smart phones

In 2004, owners of Nokia 702 phones suddenly found their batteries running out of power after just 30 minutes due to extensive Bluetooth activity; the culprit turned out to be the Cabir worm, which uses Bluetooth to transmit itself from phone to phone in the form of a Symbian SIS package. As the 702 model was also available from Vodafone in Japan, it was the first time that Japanese users experienced mobile worms on a large scale. In light of this, what steps are domestic carriers taking to prevent phones from becoming infected?

Safeguards include working closely with handset suppliers to control phone specifications. Most Japanese mobiles previously ran on TRON (The Real Operating system Nucleus), which was developed under the supervision of a Tokyo University professor named Ken Sakamura; no virus has been reported for TRON-powered phones. Also, viruses planted in Java applications might have been the target for hackers, but device fragmentation for Java is too large to be of prime interest.

It would appear, therefore, that Symbian Series60 operating systems -- a widely deployed platform -- are the only legitimate virus target. But Symbian applications usually prompt the user before installing, and the company beefed up its security with the release of version 9. Most Japanese handsets that feature Symbian, with the exception of the Panasonic model from DoCoMo's latest 902i-series, don't have Bluetooth, meaning no viruses will be spread through this channel.

DoCoMo installs a security scan program on its Symbian phones to check downloaded applications, and it offers free patches from its website. Vodafone's 3G Symbian handsets, meanwhile, are vulnerable to viruses, as they're sold worldwide. So far, there have been no reports that KDDI phones running on Qualcomm's platform have been infected, as BREW applications can only be downloaded from trusted servers.

Even with more secure operating systems and better checking software, viruses will not become extinct, and many users won't be aware of what could happen if they're prompted to install an application. Overseas carriers should take a look at DoCoMo's proactive policy relating to viruses -- diligently keeping their customers informed and offering free software -- and begin providing their own services before it's too late.

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