Now, hackers try outsmarting smartphones

Now, hackers try outsmarting smartphones


This year, the Russian antivirus company Kaspersky Lab reported on a new malicious programme that stole money by taking over Nokia phones and making small charges to the owners’ wireless accounts.

Last month, an Australian student created an experimental worm that hopscotched across ‘jailbroken’ iPhones, which are phones altered to run software Apple has not authorised. The mischievous worm did not cause any damage; it just installed a photo of the ’80s pop star Rick Astley. But to security experts, it suggested that pernicious attacks on iPhones are possible.

Where there are perceived security threats, there are always entrepreneurs and investors looking to capitalise on them —— and build profitable businesses. This month Khosla Ventures, a prominent Silicon Valley venture capital firm, led an investment group that injected US$5.5 million into a fledgling security start-up called Lookout.

Security applications
Now, Lookout wants to be the security giant of the mobile world, similar to the role Symantec plays in the PC market. This year, Lookout began testing security software for phones running the Windows Mobile and Android operating systems, and it will soon introduce security applications for the BlackBerry and iPhone. The software protects phones against rogue programs and gives phone owners the ability to remotely back up and erase the data on their phones. It also lets them track the location of their handset on the Web. A basic version of the software is free, while the company plans to charge a monthly subscription for a version with more features.

Security vulnerabilities
“It feels a lot like it did in 1999 in desktop security,” said Lookout Chief Executive John Hering, who for years has done research demonstrating security vulnerabilities in phones. “People are using the mobile Web and downloading applications more than ever before, and there are threats that come with that.”

Lookout represents the latest attempt to build a new business that capitalises on the surge of smartphones. Thousands of companies making mobile games, shopping tools and other programmes have sprung up in the last two years as the iPhone in particular has taken off. Further, companies like Research In Motion, and Good Technology, a Silicon Valley-based mobile messaging firm, already offer mobile security tools, but their systems are aimed at businesses. Security firms like Symantec also have mobile security divisions, and a five-year-old company, Trust Digital, based in McLean, Va., has set its sights on this market.

Lookout’s founders and backers concede that for now, snoops and bad guys pose much less of a threat to cellphones than to PCs. But they believe there is an immediate need for software that preserves and protects a phone’s data, from e-mail to corporate information, and they say current systems do not work when a family or business has multiple types of cellphones on various wireless networks.

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