February 14, 2008 / 3:11 PM / 12 years ago

Mobile industry sees new security risks

BARCELONA (Reuters) - Security systems can now block the first computer viruses attack on cell phones, but the mobile industry sees new risks stemming from upcoming open software platforms such as Google’s Android.

A prototype of the Google Android mobile by NEC is on display at the Mobile World Congress (formerly 3GSM World Congress) in Barcelona, February 11, 2008. REUTERS/Albert Gea

Since 2004, viruses have been able to disable phones or swell phone bills through pricey messages or unwanted calls, leading to a new security technology market.

“If Android becomes a fully open platform ... and when such a platform becomes more common, risks are greater than with the current platform kings such as Symbian,” said Mikko Hypponen, head of research at security software firm F-Secure.

Security specialists also pointed to potential risks arising from Apple’s plans to open its software platform to third party developers this month.

“Apple has dealt very elegantly in the past with security issues. There will be issues. Apple will fix them,” said Jan Volzke, global marketing head at McAfee’s mobile unit.

Roughly 65 percent of all smartphones sold in the fourth quarter used software from British supplier Symbian, according to research firm Canalys.

Apple was fourth largest vendor with 7 percent of the market, following Microsoft and RIM.

F-Secure and McAfee have been the leading security software vendors for mobiles, but many other anti-virus firms rolled out products for the mobile industry over the last few years.

While the risk of a cell phone getting infected is still relatively small, thousands of phones have seen problems.

“Although the first problems were already quite extensive and appeared all over the world, current smartphones from the largest device makers, particularly Nokia, have got rid of these problems,” said F-Secure’s Hypponen.

Almost three out of four users were concerned about the safety of using new mobile services, showed a survey of 2,000 cell phone users, commissioned by McAfee, and unveiled this week at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

“Concerns about specific mobile security risks or ... reliability of services is a crucial issue for operators, particularly in mature markets,” Victor Kouznetsov, senior vice president at McAfee’s mobile unit, said in a statement.

Mobile service providers are increasingly betting on new data services when looking for growth in mature markets where call prices are falling.

“Consumer fears are growing in tandem with increased mobile functionality,” Kouznetsov said, adding this puts at risk the potential revenue from new services.

One in seven global mobile users have already been exposed to mobile viruses, either directly or they know someone whose phone has been infected, McAfee’s study showed.

Since the first mobile virus appeared in 2004 the number of different viruses, worms or other types of malware has reached 395, F-Secure said, adding that the number of malware has increased only slightly in the last 12 months.

Additional reporting by Sami Torma; Editing by Jason Neely

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