There have been a lot of great articles written in the wake of my presentation on Mobile Spyware at Shmoocon 2010. Many of them show wonderful insight into the problems that mobile carriers and owners of the mobile applications stores are facing. However, for every handful of great articles, we occasionally come across a technical expert that presents a different viewpoint. Usually it's best to let the articles stand on their own merit and let the readers decide for themselves, but in this instance I think it might be best to use a recent article to demonstrate how incorrect statements create confusion about the issues.

The article I'm referring to is Mobile security: Hackers kept at bay by lack of a standard platform. The article does not directly reference my presentation, but it does make some points that just don't make sense. The first half of the article has some expert commentary that is cause for concern, while the second half raises interesting questions that bolster my arguments.

In the first half of the article, the author turned to Candid Wueest, senior threat researcher at Symantec, for comments on monocultures in the arena of mobile malware, ease of malware creation, and the safety of downloading applications from the device manufacturers application marketplace.

As long as smartphone users download applications only through authorised, moderated channels, he argues, they can be confident their mobile platform will limit the actions these applications can perform.

This is absolutely not true. I showed in my presentation examples of spyware that has already been discovered sourcing from so called “authorized, moderated channels” such as the Google Android Marketplace and the Apple iTunes store. This is exactly the type of false sense of security that is coming from the “authorized” marketplaces and trickling down to the consumer. In this instance we see the level of trust that even a subject matter expert is giving to the mobile application stores to provide only secure and trusted applications. Until the application store operators become transparent with their procedures and policies regarding the security of applications they make available, the above statement only makes the problem worse.

“At the same time, he adds, relatively few hackers have the in-depth skills and understanding necessary to create viruses capable of targeting a specific mobile platform.”

Programming, specifically Java, is not my daily job. It's not what I do day in and day out. I am far from an expert with in-depth skills when it comes to writing mobile malware, yet it didn't take me all that long to figure it out. I went from zero blackberry knowledge to programming a fully functional piece of spyware within a month or two. I’d say that it doesn’t really take “in-depth skills and understanding” to create malware capable of targeting a specific mobile platform.

“A monoculture is far more helpful to virus writers, so while we’ve seen 4m viruses, worms and trojans attack Windows, we’ve seen only 400 kinds of malware aimed at mobile platforms,” he says.

While I agree that a monoculture is far more helpful to virus writers, it’s not like we are dealing with a culture that has 100+ different options. If you target iPhone and Blackberry alone you would get a huge percentage of the US market, and if you throw in Symbian you cover a good chunk of Europe as well. We also have to consider the amount of time that people have kept sensitive data on Windows systems and how long they have kept that same data on their smartphones. Smartphones have really come into vogue as miniature computing systems in the last year or two, while full service computing systems have been around for ages.

I'm not suggesting that the mobile apocalypse is coming in 2010. What I am suggesting is that 2010 will see a notable increase in the amount of malware created and propagated via the mobile application store fronts such as iTunes, Blackberry App Center, and the Google Android Marketplace. The data is migrating to the hand held, so will the cyberattacks.

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About Tyler Shields

Tyler Shields is a Senior Researcher for the Veracode Research Lab whose responsibilities include understanding and examining interesting and relevant security and attack methods for integration into the Veracode product offerings. He also keeps track of new developments from other computer science and information security researchers to ensure that Veracode technologies are always kept in line with the most recent security advancements.

Comments (1)

Aram Hăvărneanu | February 18, 2010 10:58 am

"Programming [...] is not my daily job. It’s not what I do day in and day out."

How do you call yourself then? :-). You surely are a much better programmer than I am, and I happen to write kernel code... So, if *you* are not a programmer, what am *I* then? :-).

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