Operator Foibles Make Things Hard For Mobile Viruses

We’re regaled with yet another doomsday story about mobile viruses, though this one’s a little different. An anti-virus firm says it’s seen a proof-of-concept virus that could infect any mobile phone running Java, and sends premium-rate messages to a Russian number that we’re told can cost as much as $6. First, like previous scares, users have to go to a lot of steps to install the virus, which masquerades as a web browser. Unlike some previous mobile viruses, this one can’t even spread itself around — it has to be manually installed to infect a device. But beyond that, a couple of the mobile market’s inadequacies will actually serve to protect it from this kind of virus. One major problem with J2ME has been the way it’s been implemented differently on different handsets, with different manufacturers supporting different features (such as the ability for a Java app to send SMS messages). So any claim that a piece of software can be installed on “any” Java phone, whether it’s a legitimate application or virus, is dubious at best. The other issue is sending the text messages to a foreign premium-rate operator. If, for instance, US operators were only recently able to introduce cross-carrier shortcodes and premium billing here — it wasn’t even that long ago we didn’t have domestic SMS interoperability — the idea that my phone could send a $6 premium SMS to a Russian number remains a distant one. Certainly this could be adapted to message in-country numbers, though that would limit its effectiveness. Ironically, or maybe fortunately, it’s the industry’s own ineptitude that promises to limit the damage caused by these types of mobile viruses.

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