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Researchers Building Tools To Clean Up Infected Smart Phones Via The Wireless Network

Georgia Tech working on tools for wireless providers to fix compromised phones remotely
Researchers at Georgia Tech are developing tools for cleaning up mobile phones infected with malware remotely over the mobile network -- an approach that would ultimately give wireless providers a less intrusive method of restoring compromised smartphones.

The National Science Foundation recently awarded the Georgia Tech College of Computing a three-year, $450,000 grant for the project to develop tools to advance the security of mobile devices and their networks.

Jonathon Giffin, an assistant professor at Georgia Tech's School of Computer Science, says the project was a natural progression from previous research performed by the university demonstrating how an attacker could take down a cellular network with malicious SMS text messages in a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack. "We want to help wireless providers and give them a next step after detection," Giffin says. "There's no action to take right now. They're unwilling to terminate service because that would cause them to lose a customer."

Cellular providers face the same issues with their wireless subscribers as with their broadband Internet customers: not being too invasive when helping an infected machine, nor shutting them off the service altogether.

So today it's mostly up to the user to do something about their compromised smartphones. "Right now the way most people clean up virus-infected phones is to buy a new phone," says Robert Graham, CEO of Errata Security.

Georgia Tech's Giffin says the project will build a "remote repair" option for service providers that lets them disable the malware they detect running on a user's smartphone. "It would involve having a small base of trusted software on the phone," he says, adding that the researchers have even considered a virtual machine approach. "This software [on the handheld] responds to commands coming from the network to help the software take certain actions, [such as to] disable the [malicious] software and report information back to the network to help the network decide what the attack is."

Graham says the trouble with the Georgia Tech approach, however, is it requires the mobile provider to run "arbitrary code" on the user's phone. "That has several flaws," he says. Viruses could likely disable that software, he says, rendering it useless. And such an approach would kill the process of "unlocking" a phone from a particular carrier, for instance, he says.

"It [also] means the FBI could subpoena your carrier in order to send something nasty to your phone," Graham says.

Georgia Tech is working with Android phones in its research, mainly because it's an open-source technology. Giffin says the remote repair could entail disabling some functionality on the phone (think apps) and, in some cases, might require the user to plug the phone into a USB for "some heavyweight analysis to identify the malware if the [service provider] can't identify the malware," he says.

The phone's voice calling and text messaging functions would remain operational during the recovery/repair process, however.

Giffin says the toughest part of the project will be identifying the actual malicious code running on the smartphones. "From a network perspective, you know it's [the phone] behaving badly. But identifying [the source of the problem] can also be a hard problem," he says.

Georgia Tech also plans to build a testbed wireless network on campus to test out the tools. Giffin says the network-based repair approach makes more sense than trying to squeeze desktop security tools onto smartphones. "Moving antivirus onto a mobile device isn't effective," he says. "Mobile devices have constraints like battery use and slower processors. We don't think these tools translate well to the mobile space...and we've seen that antivirus isn't terribly effective on the desktop."

With centralized network locations, the researchers will have a better vantage point to observe attacks and start the recovery process, he says.

The researchers hope to publish a paper on their findings around August of next year, he says.

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