Is your PDA at risk from malignant code?

How much is your PDA at risk from malignant code? It may help to divide this question into two parts: What do you stand to lose, and how will you lose it? Find out how you can measure--and minimize--your device's risk of attack.

Did your Palm just sneeze? As savvy computer users, we're all aware that our desktop and notebook computers are at risk for all manner of worms, Trojan Horses, and viruses. We've learned to be careful about avoiding infection, and vigilant about detecting attacks. But our PDAs?

COMMENTARY--Last fall, we discovered that even PDAs are at risk. That's when the first Palm OS Trojan Horse (Liberty Crack) and viruses (Phage and Vapor) were revealed. To date, I'm not aware of any report of viruses for the Pocket PC, but that does not mean that viruses aren't out there--or on the way.

So let's agree that there is a credible threat from PDA viruses. That still leaves us with one important question: How much is your PDA at risk from malignant code? It may help to divide this question into two parts: What do you stand to lose, and how will you lose it?

Before PDAs, people lugged giant Filofax personal organizers around at work and at home (and some still do). The big difference between a Filofax and a PDA is that if you lose your PDA data--or even the PDA itself--you can just resync from your desktop computer and all your data is restored. Lose your Filofax, and unless you've been photocopying all the pages every night, you're cooked.

So you actually gain one form of protection simply by the nature of the data that you store on your PDA. It is automatically backed up every time you sync with your desktop. As long as we continue to view PDAs as receptacles for data that is duplicated on a desktop, any loss from a virus attack will likely be limited to changes made since the last sync session.

The processors and operating systems in PDAs are so different from desktops that it is unlikely--if not impossible--for a single virus to do damage to your data on both platforms at the same time. So your data is probably safe, even if you do nothing.

Note, however, that if we start using PDAs as the sole repository for new work and data, then all bets are off. The cost of losing data to a virus attack increases rapidly.

So how likely is it that your PDA is going to get infected in the first place? According to the Palm site, there are more than 8,500 different applications available for Palm OS devices alone. I have to wonder, however, what percentage of Palm users have anything but the originally bundled applications running on their handhelds.

I'm sure that there are lots of power users who have downloaded all sorts of clever utilities and handy add-ons, but I suspect that they represent a small minority. Just as most desktop users have never opened their computers' cases, I suspect that most PDA users rarely run programs that weren't loaded on the device from the start, or weren't added by a trusted source such as a company IT department.

If you don't download other programs, your PDA can't get infected. And if you do download programs, but stick to well-established products from well-known publishers presented on reputable sites--just as you should with desktop applications--then your chances of getting infected rise only slightly.

So if almost everyone is practicing safe syncs already with their PDAs, then all the concern about PDA viruses is likely to fade away before long.

However, if you're still concerned about viruses on PDAs, the antivirus software community is working to protect you. You can download new scanning utilities for Palm OS devices from Symantec, McAfee.com, and F-Secure. You'll also find that many desktop virus scanners, such as PC-cillin from Trend Micro, are now adding the ability to scan PDA files before they are transferred to your PDA. Blue Nomad's BackupBuddy utility also scans for viruses during hot sync.

It probably won't hurt to use one of these utilities, but if you're like most PDA users, you probably won't need them.

Has your PDA been smitten yet? Are you concerned that it will be? Let us know in TalkBack, below.

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