Security fail: Phones, tablets and other devices vulnerable to hackers and viruses

Published: Friday, Feb. 15 2013 9:50 a.m. MST

Mobile devices are becoming as vulnerable to malware and virus attacks as regular PCs.

"miniyo73" via Flickr

People may think their shiny new smartphones and tablets are safe from hackers and malicious software, but that isn't the case, Internet security experts say. Not only are new mobile devices vulnerable, most do not even come with basic virus protection software.

It gets worse. People can have malware on their phones and see no signs of trouble until it is too late. And experts say the problem is getting worse.

"Mobile phones and tablets are not on the consumers' radar when it comes to digital security," says Robert Siciliano, McAfee's Internet security expert. McAfee is a provider of computer security software and solutions.

The reasons why people don't think much about the dangers to mobile devices has a lot to do with the history of viruses and hacking.

Siciliano says the bad guys in the past mostly targeted PCs.

"Microsoft's operating system was the most hacked on the planet," he says. "They were the big player."

There were millions and millions of viruses targeting Windows.

On the other hand, Apple's Macintosh computers were harder to hack — and because there were fewer of them, they were not as appealing targets. Siciliano says that has changed as Apple adopted some practices similar to Microsoft such as a more open operating system.

But the memories of PC viruses linger. People may not even think about the vulnerabilities of their smartphone. Hackers, however, think about smartphones all the time.

A man called Space Rogue knows all about this. Space Rogue is a hacker, the good guy kind who helps companies look for security vulnerabilities in systems so they can fix them. He is the threat intelligence manager for Trustwave SpiderLabs, an information security company based in Chicago, but keeps his real identity secret to avoid retaliation from the not-so-good type of hackers.

"I don't think people realize that what they have in their hand is a computer," he says, "a computer that is more powerful than the common desktop people were using just a few years ago."

In the good old days, viruses and malware were created by people who just wanted to see what problems they could cause. The malicious programs were obvious because they did things like erase files and reformat hard drives. The creators of the viruses were doing it for fun.

Now the creators of viruses and malware use different tactics.

"Malware tries to prevent detection," Space Rogue says. "It tries to hide itself."

The goal isn't to destroy, but to steal. The people who create malware and viruses aren't in it for the laughs — unless you count laughing all the way to the bank.

Tempting targets

"The bad guys changed their motivation," McAfee's Siciliano says. "Your mobile device is with you … no matter where you are, no matter what you are doing. Whereas your PC isn't, unless it is on your lap or you are sitting in front of it at a desk, maybe 8 to 10 hours a day. Your mobile is with you in the doctor's office, it is with you standing in line at the concert, at the park, it is with you all the time. Bad guys know this and they are focusing on it because it is an excellent opportunity for them."

People are using their devices for banking online, credit card purchases and storing other personal information, Siciliano says.

Space Rogue says the criminals want to get control of victims' bank accounts, credit card numbers or to steal victims' identities. Often the criminals are doing this by repurposing older malware and viruses that were originally designed for PCs.

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