As embedded operating systems become more widespread in household appliances, some security experts are warning that computer viruses could rival salmonella bacteria as the biggest health risk in the new generation of fridges.
Eugene Kaspersky, head of antivirus research at Kasperksy Labs, believes that such Internet-enabled appliances will be susceptible to viruses because they are likely to use common operating systems -- in particular Microsoft Windows -- and because the manufacturers have little knowledge of software security. These two factors mean that these appliances are much more likely than devices such as mobile phones to be hit by viruses, according to Kaspersky.
Kaspersky's assertion is based on the premise that for any device to be susceptible to virus writers it must first meet three criteria. It must be able to run applications and be widespread, it must be documented and it must be poorly protected. According to this rule, mobile phones will be relatively safe from viruses. "(Mobile phone) manufacturers have a lot of experience in making very secure operating systems so they will not meet the third criteria and should be able to stop any viruses," said Kaspersky said in an interview with ZDNet UK.
But there may be one other factor that affects whether viruses ever get written for Internet-enabled appliances: laziness. According to Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant with antivirus firm Sophos, it is easy to write an email virus, like the Anna Kournikova one, that attacks PCs, because these are written in high level languages, and there are even tools available to help people write them.
"Virus writers are lazy," said Cluley. "If you know that computers are using the same operating system, the same email client and the same word processor, and they are well documented, then writing a virus is easy." But, said Cluley, to write viruses for embedded systems -- even for Pocket PC -- requires homework. "And then the chances of it spreading are still low compared to the desktop PC."
If the chances of a virus spreading on a particular platform are low, argues Cluley, then because the incentive for virus writers is to infect as many people as possible, that platform is likely to be ignored. And even if the platform is not ignored, "it is unlikely that the software on a fridge or VCR will let its user receive email and then auto-open the attachment or forward it," said Cluley. "Most viruses still require a human element -- people receive an email and like Pavlov's dogs they automatically click on the attachment."
Antivirus vendors say that not all possible ways for viruses to spread have yet been explored. For instance, one antivirus technologist said off the record that he expects more email viruses to appear that do not require human intervention to spread.
Mark Toschak, a virus analyst at email security outsourcing firm Messagelabs, said the Klez virus went some way towards this with a mechanism that let it spread as soon as it appeared in the preview pane of Outlook; it did not have to wait for someone to click on an attachment. "We will definitely see more of these," he said.
But for now the chances of this appear slim. "You may well send messages to Safeway and order salami," said Graham Cluley of Sophos, "but your fridge is unlikely to go and talk to other fridges on its own. This could be the next load of hype around the corner."
Some Internet-enabled appliances, such as the LG Internet fridge, pictured here, run on Windows 98. "This is little more than a PC with a fridge attached," said Cluley. "If it has an email client it could receive a virus, but antivirus software would run on it just as easily. It makes no difference from a protection point of view whether or not you have an ice pack attached to your PC." Indeed, the LG internet fridge runs a virus checker at all times, so from that point of view it is as protected as any other PC from viruses, according to LG. In addition, this particular system reinstalls from a hidden hard disk partition as soon as it resets, which helps keep viruses at bay.
Read a full review of the LG Internet fridge here.