Prank leads to fears about mobile security

Practical joke in Japan initiates fears about virus attacks on mobiles

Japan's i-mode mobile phones were hit by a bizarre attack Tuesday which security experts warn may be just the first of many security worries for broadband mobile Internet.

Hundreds of Japanese i-mode users were stung by a prank which forced phones to dial "110" -- the police emergency telephone number in Japan -- during an online quiz.

The Internet quiz about relationships was designed especially for i-mode phones and was configured so that if contestants answered "yes" to a particular question their phones immediately established a connection with the police. According to reports, the police were inundated by 400 fake calls in a single day.

A spokesman for NTT DoCoMo -- the Japanese company behind the i-mode standard -- has reportedly blamed the prank on a command hidden within the program running the quiz.

The practical joke has triggered concern among security experts that it is just the first of many mobile virus attacks. Jack Clark, European product manager for security firm Network Associates takes it as a sign of things to come. "It demonstrates that malicious people are looking into this," he says.

It is already possible for email viruses and worms to find their way onto standard GSM mobile phones through SMS (Short Messaging Service) gateways on the Internet. This was demonstrated during the outbreak of the LoveBug virus and by a worm aimed specifically at Spanish mobile phone users named Timofonica.

According to antivirus vendors, Europe's current mobile Internet standard, WAP, does not feature capabilities that could be exploited maliciously. Future generations of European mobile phones based on broader connectivity, using firstly GPRS and eventually UMTS technology will, however, offer far greater functionality which in turn will make them more vulnerable to virus attacks.

Clark says that security firms already have one eye on possible security exploits with these technologies. "This [attack] is a glimpse of the future," he warns.

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