Open Source may Create Security Risks for Mobile Phones

To date, mobile phones have been relatively safe from cyber attacks when compared to PCs. Security systems have been able to block most viruses on cell phones, but the mobile industry foresees risks coming from the open software platforms that are looming in the near future. Google is backing the Android open source software which is in competition with LiMo Foundation’s Linux software.

“If Android becomes a fully open platform … and when such a platform becomes more common, risks are greater than with the current platform kings such as Symbian,” said Mikko Hypponen, head of research at security software firm F-Secure.

Apple is planning to open its platform to third party developers this month, which creates potential risks for the iPhone.

“Apple has dealt very elegantly in the past with security issues. There will be issues. Apple will fix them,” said Jan Volzke, global marketing head at McAfee’s mobile unit.

According to research firm Canalys, 65% of all smartphones sold in the fourth quarter used software from Symbian. Apple was the fourth largest vendor with 7% of market share, following Microsoft and RIM.

F-Secure and McAfee are leading security software vendors for the mobile industry. The risk of a cell phone getting infected is small but thousands of phones have seen problems.

“Although the first problems were already quite extensive and appeared all over the world, current smartphones from the largest device makers, particularly Nokia, have got rid of these problems,” said F-Secure’s Hypponen.

Infected phones would shut down or have huge phone bills as the device would make unwanted calls or connected to expensive services.

Users fear that their handsets are open to attack. (See: Rare Mobile Phone Viruses Feared by Public). The perception of safety is a concern for the mobile industry as handsets become more complicated so as to provide more services to the public.

“Concerns about specific mobile security risks or … reliability of services is a crucial issue for operators, particularly in mature markets,” Victor Kouznetsov, senior vice president at McAfee’s mobile unit, said in a statement.

“Consumer fears are growing in tandem with increased mobile functionality,” Kouznetsov said, adding this puts at risk the potential revenue from new services.