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Experts fear drive-by computer viruses
By Lance Gay
Scripps Howard News Service


March 24, 2005

Until a year ago, the concept that someone could infect a computer while just passing by seemed like a pipe dream.

Today, it's the digital age's nightmare.

Following the appearance of viruses that infect cell phones from a distance, security experts wonder if computers running home digital television sets, burglar alarms or even global positioning systems could be similarly infected and disabled.

Alfred Huger, senior director of engineering at the security software firm Symantec, said he expects in the future that someone just walking through a house with an infected cell phone could pass viruses to home computers or any other device with a wireless connection.

"I think we are looking at threats crossing platforms," said Huger.

Huger said the appearance of cell-phone viruses that can be transmitted through wireless connections were only theoretical until a year ago, when a version of the Cabir virus turned up on two cell phones displayed behind glass windows in a California cell-phone store.

The exact method of infection isn't known, but it's suspected that a passerby transferred the infected viruses through a wireless connection.

Huger said the first generations of the virus were innocuous, but the virus writers released their computer source codes on the Internet, providing vital information to other virus writers. Other versions are appearing that keep cell-phone connections active to run down the battery and run up fees. "The first version was Cabir-A, and we're already up to Cabir-T," he said.

Some experts predict that if cell phone virus writers follow the same pattern as the writers of worms and viruses did with personal computers, the innocuous viruses will soon be followed with malicious versions that do damage; not far behind would be viruses that operate like spyware on computers to steal information.

In its annual report on security issued last month, IBM warned of the "new and troubling trend" presented viruses for owners of handheld mobile computers. The release of the code for making the virus means "it's likely such worms will be used by copycat writers and may spur an epidemic of viruses."

IBM said new viruses will turn the attention of hackers away from information technology networks toward stand-alone systems or personal digital assistants.

It hasn't happened yet, but Paul Stamp, a technology analyst with Forrester Research in Massachusetts, said it is theoretically possible that future viruses could jump across platforms.

"If it is attached to a network and if it is programmable, then there is a chance it can be infected," Stamp said.

Stamp said many consumers aren't aware of the vulnerabilities of their new electronic gadgets. They often don't use all of the functions but leave them active most of the time, opening security holes for viruses to invade.

Computerized equipment traditionally has been sold with all its functions set as default "on" and running when the power is turned on - even if the consumer never intends to use all the functions. Default "off" provides consumers with only basic functions active when the device leaves the factory, allowing consumers to decide which functions to activate and which to leave dormant.

"That would be one way to mitigate attacks," Stamp said.

Michael Foley, executive director of the California-based Bluetooth Special Interest Group, said the wireless technology consortium has upgraded software to strengthen security.

Foley said selling devices with default settings turned off doesn't solve the virus threat problem. "A true solution is education of the customer by manufacturers on how to operate the device in order to stem the virus tide," Foley said.

People should turn their cell phones to non-discoverable mode when in crowded areas and set them to not automatically accept files or photos, Foley said.

Internet stories that viruses could affect computers operating vital components of cars like brakes or running systems prompted Toyota/Lexus engineers to issue a statement last month saying the GPS systems on their cars use proprietary computer software. They said that it is not possible for someone to infect their system with a virus.

Home security concern Smarthome says that because of virus concerns, it is steering away from the Internet and cell phones that can operate its equipment.

"A cell phone that has the ability to monitor a vacation home, for example, is just as susceptible to viruses as your latest e-mail program," said Rajeev Kapur, vice president of sales and marketing for Smarthome.

Kapur said Smarthome has developed technologies that require specifically coded transmissions to get into their equipment.


Contact Lance Gay at GayL(at)
Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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