Is That A Rootkit In Your Pocket?

Computer scientists from Rutgers University have demonstrated how smart phones could be as susceptible to rootkit infiltration as PC and server operating systems.

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Computer scientists from Rutgers University have demonstrated how smart phones could be as susceptible to rootkit infiltration as PC and server operating systems.Vinod Ganapathy, assistant professor of computer science in Rutgers' School of Arts and Sciences and computer science professor Liviu Iftode worked with three students to study rootkits as they pertain to smart phones. Rootkits, for the record, are an especially nasty form of malware that very difficult to detect and often obscure themselves by hooking into operating system internals.

I always assumed, as smart phone processing power and mobile operating systems grew more powerful, it would only a matter of time before this stuff gets real. From the Rutger's release on their research:

"Rootkit attacks on smart phones or upcoming tablet computers could be more devastating because smart phone owners tend to carry their phones with them all the time. This creates opportunities for potential attackers to eavesdrop, extract personal information from phone directories, or just pinpoint a user's whereabouts by querying the phone's Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver. Smart phones also have new ways for malware to enter the system, such as through a Bluetooth radio channel or via text message."

I've no doubt that all of the malware that plagues PCs and the Internet are going to spread to smart phones: viruses, worms, Trojans, keystroke loggers, and rootkits. Though I don't agree that smart phone attacks are more devastating than attacks on PCs and notebooks. At least not yet. Today, you don't have to bank, trade stocks, or even store much sensitive information on your smart phone. That luxury may change in time, however.

In their tests they didn't use any actual software flaws or vulnerabilities to inject the rootkits, rather they developed the rootkit using a phone that a software developer would use and inserted the rootkit into the system. Though I don't think it'd be too hard to trick many users to download a game or something to their phone that injects one of these things.

Such attacks - like remotely turning on a phone's microphone - aren't entirely new, as it's been known that Bluetooth enabled devices have been susceptible to such attacks for some time. However, using SMS and having the phone call the attacker would mean there's no distance limitation, such as is the case with Bluetooth attacks.

While not a significant threat today, it's growing more concerning as these phones grow more powerful, we're running more applications on them, and we'll be conducting more sensitive transactions on our phones in the years ahead.

About the Author(s)

George V. Hulme, Contributing Writer

An award winning writer and journalist, for more than 20 years George Hulme has written about business, technology, and IT security topics. He currently freelances for a wide range of publications, and is security blogger at

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