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Smartphone Threats Intensify

Enterprise data at risk, according to new McAfee report, which shows mobile device manufacturers seeing more malware attacks than ever before
Security threats were bound to catch up with the proliferation of smartphones across the enterprise. More than half of mobile device-makers said their products experienced malware, voice-, or text spam attacks last year, according to a newly published report from McAfee.

Experts have long warned that smartphones, such as Windows Mobile and iPhone handsets, could become the new weakest link in the enterprise, with more users relying on them for accessing corporate email, surfing the Web, and other applications. "[Users] want to do everything on them," says Stewart Allen, a Toronto-based independent consultant. "But they are [typically] completely bypassing the IT infrastructure." They are also bypassing security, he says, putting sensitive corporate data at risk.

McAfee's report, which is based on a survey of 30-plus mobile device manufacturers from around the world, found these vendors are getting hit with more malware attacks than ever before. As a result, they are spending more money on recovering from them.

Nearly 55 percent said network or service-capacity problems have ensued due to mobile security incidents -- up from 25 percent in 2007. Around half said third-party application/content problems had plagued their devices last year, up from around 25 percent in 2007. Around 48 percent said their devices accounted for data loss problems, up from around 27 percent in 2007.

Enterprise smartphones are starting to get hit with the types of security problems wireless LANs have been facing, industry experts say. "We've had a lot of conversations with our [wireless] customers, and a lot of the same rules that apply to laptops and wireless apply to handhelds," says Scott Pope, product marketing manager for mobility solutions at Cisco Systems. Viruses -- especially via Windows -- can be carried from smartphones to the network, he says, which puts the entire infrastructure at risk.

And identifying smartphones on the network is difficult today. "This is a fairly tough nut to crack. How do I decide if the laptop is getting on the network or a handheld? If I'm running NAC [network access control], I can do it...But visibility into the handheld is an area where there's not much deployed," Pope says.

Last fall, a new smartphone-specific malware variant called Beselo emerged, prompting warnings from mobile security vendor AdaptiveMobile, which said one of its mobile operator customers (it wouldn't identify by name) gets hit with 100,000 virus incidents each day. That same provider had previously seen a total of 70,000 in one year. Beselo spreads via Bluetooth and Multimedia Message Service (MMS) and goes after all smartphones, according to AdaptiveMobile.

However, like other mobile virus variants today, Besolo doesn't rapidly spread widely. "It doesn't replicate itself particularly well. That is a fundamental limitation of most mobile viruses," says Gareth Maclachlan, COO and co-founder of AdaptiveMobile. He says only 10 percent of MMS users were infected with a virus within a six-month period. "MMS is not a particularly effective [means of spreading malware]," he says.

Meanwhile, more than half of the mobile manufacturers surveyed by McAfee said that between 10,000 and 1 million of their handsets experienced data-loss incidents last year; voice- or text-spam attacks have hit the most devices overall, with more than 20 percent of respondents reporting that in excess of 1 million of their devices had been hit with these attacks. Nearly 50 percent said they have experienced an increase in costs for patching and fixing their devices.

But this is only the first wave of security woes that will eventually plague smartphones, experts say. One mobile device chipset vendor quoted in the survey said the combination of multimedia applications and opening up of mobile operating systems "will be the tipping point" for mobile security problems.

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