Schwartz On Security: Slouching Toward Smartphone, Apple Armageddon

Every new year brings fresh warnings that the next smartphone botnet or Apple "I Love You" virus is imminent, while real attacks keep escalating.

Mathew J. Schwartz, Contributor

January 26, 2011

4 Min Read

Smartphones and Apple OS X computers currently draw little attention from attackers.

Could all that be about to change, as the pace of patches and improvements in software design make Windows a less juicy target? We've been hearing this refrain for at least a couple of years, and I'm still not convinced.

Cisco is now making the case. "For a long time, cybercriminals have found many opportunities to take advantage of users through the Windows PC," says Patrick Peterson, a senior security researcher at Cisco. "It was easy, so why go anywhere else? But now, the Windows operating system is in much better shape -- and criminals are getting hungry."

In late 2009, a report from Symantec made a similar prediction: "As Mac and smartphones continue to increase in popularity in 2010, more attackers will devote time to creating malware to exploit these devices."

In fact, security researchers for years have been forecasting the vulnerability of Apple products -- and more recently, smartphones in general. True, one factor today is different from before: Android, BlackBerry, and iPhone platforms feature an enormous number of users and store an immense number of secrets. "As more people move to mobile devices, attackers will always go for where the people are, period," says Cisco senior security researcher Mary Landesman. "It's why Web-based malware has become such a problem over the past five years, because everyone is online and browsing, 24/7."

What's also different today is that mobile operating systems are relatively sophisticated. "As far as mobile device threats go, as of today, certainly the environment has matured to the point where it is ripe for something to occur," says Landesman. But exactly what form that "something" might take remains an open question. Says Landesman: "I don't anticipate seeing an iPhone worm, for example. But certainly, using mobile devices in conjunction with social engineering attacks will probably be at least one form that we see."

Does a large installed base of mobile users, however, necessarily presage smartphone Armageddon? Consider what Windows still offers: a large base of users, no walled gardens, machines with numerous unpatched vulnerabilities, and lots of stored financial data and sensitive information.

Furthermore, fueling the growth in Windows attacks -- targeted or unleashed en masse -- has also been the rise of automated botnet-building attack toolkits that let semi-computer-literate criminals orchestrate large assaults. When we see the same happening for smartphones, be scared. Meantime, expect a more gradual upswing in attacks, as opposed to a big bang. Ditto for Apple OS X attacks. Industry watchers -- and security vendors -- have been predicting the imminent demise of Mac's "security by obscurity" status. But as with smartphones, Apple Armageddon isn't imminent.

Case in point: In November 2010, Sophos reported that by far the largest amount of malware trawled by its free Mac antivirus software was Windows sludge. While Sophos saw a few Mac-oriented exploits, and some cross-platform attacks written in Java, it found no clear and present danger.

At some future point, smartphones and Apple OS X will likely "feel the love" from attackers. But organizations face more immediate risks. For example, despite last year's focus on Adobe patching its products against zero-day attacks, Landesman says companies were much more likely to be exploited by Java than a malicious PDF.

"In 2010, Java exploits were three-and-a-half times more prevalent than malicious PDFs, and the reason for that was simple: Everyone was focused on PDFs and taking precautions, whether that meant keeping security up to date, or Adobe issuing more security updates," Landesman says. "But users weren't focused at all on Java, which is more ubiquitous than Adobe Reader and Acrobat, and apparently this was not being patched or policed as well, and consequently it was the threat frontrunner for the year." As always, criminals prefer the easiest path to an exploit.

So, with the security of every mobile device operating system receiving intense scrutiny, and Mac watchers waiting for the day an Apple Rustock arrives, it's important to keep an eye on today's top threats, including Java.

Of course, Java also runs on mobile devices. Accordingly, will we see a large-scale Java smartphone attack? Wait for the 2012 predictions.

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2011

About the Author(s)

Mathew J. Schwartz

Contributor

Mathew Schwartz served as the InformationWeek information security reporter from 2010 until mid-2014.

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