Study Warns of Future Mobile Phone Viruses

There have been no major virus outbreaks among mobile phone. Yet.

The reason: a highly fragmented market share, which means unlike PCs, cell phones use different operating systems. Mobile phone viruses could become epidemic, however.

If mobile phones migrate to a common operating system in the future, problems could arise, says Albert-Laszlo Barabasi, director of the Center for Complex Network Research at Northeastern University. Barabasi and colleagues write about the potential in the May 22 issue of the journal Science.

"We haven't had a problem so far because only phones with operating systems, so-called 'smart phones', are susceptible to viral infection," explained Marta Gonzalez, one of the authors of the publication.

"Once a single operating system becomes common," Gonzalez said, "we could potentially see outbreaks of epidemic proportion because a mobile phone virus can spread by two mechanisms: a Bluetooth virus can infect all Bluetooth-activated phones in a 10-30 meter radius, while Multimedia Messaging System (MMS) virus, like many computer viruses, spreads using the address book of the device. Not surprisingly, hybrid viruses, which can infect via both routes, pose the most significant danger."

This study builds upon earlier research by the same group, which used mobile phone data to create a predictive model of human mobility patterns. The current work used this model to simulate Bluetooth virus infection scenarios, finding that Bluetooth viruses will eventually infect all susceptible handsets.

But there is a silver lining: The rate of spread is slow, the model predicts, being limited by human behavioral patterns. So there should be sufficient time to deploy antiviral software to prevent major Bluetooth outbreaks, the researchers conclude.

The research was supported by the National Science Foundation.

Live Science Staff
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