This mobile infection could make your smartphone spy on you

Rutgers University researchers talk about mobile security threats and predict what would happen if malware took over your smart phone's operating system.
Written by Boonsri Dickinson, Contributing Editor

Last week, my SmartPlanet colleague Heather Clancy first wrote about smartphone security threats. Clancy talked about her obsession with her iPhone.

I totally understand, I feel naked without my iPhone.

Clancy talked about the possibility of a rootkit infection, a type of malware that would secretly take over her smartphone's operating system.

The attack would spread through text messages or Bluetooth radio channel. If a hacker infected your smartphone with a rootkit, the information robber could easily eavesdrop on your private conversations, tap into your GPS and stalk you, or simply drain your battery until there's no juice left.

Seriously, all three situations would suck! I store really private data on my cell phone and would not want my digital information hacked into.

"What if" questions popped in my mind and I began to worry about my precious iPhone's safety. To put my questions to rest, I gave computer scientists Vinod Ganapathy and Liviu Iftode a ring in their office at Rutgers University to get to the root of all of this rootkit evil.

What exactly are rootkits and should I be concerned?

Ganapathy: Rootkits are pieces of malicious software that infect the operating system. It infects the heart of the machine. You can't trust results of the antivirus [programs].

Smart phones are becoming as powerful as your desktops and are run on the same operating systems. It makes sense to assume that rootkit will be present in the future. We are just trying to demonstrate the consequences.

While mobile phones haven't been infected with malware, viruses and worms have infected them. We are taking it up to the next level because this might be a realistic threat in the future. The main goal of our work is to call for defenses.

Since rootkits allow malware to hide, will there be a way to check for it?

Iftode: A rootkit cleans the information a malware detector is reading from the OS of any sign of malware.  As a result, the detector will not discover the malware even when it is there.

You don't want to leave any opportunities by only checking it at night. You want to check in real time. But you don't want to use your battery to detect malware.

What would happen to an infected smartphone?

Iftode: The mobile phone is a device you carry with you all the time. The microphone and the camera can be used to take video or pictures without you being aware of it and send them to the attacker.

Your phone is a small computer. Most people don't see phone as a potential malicious device.

Normally, you assume your phone dials the phone number you ask it to. But an infected operating system would call another phone number. If you are calling the bank, you assume you are talking to a rep from a bank and you end up giving the attacker your social security number.

The social consequences are only limited by creativity of the attacker.

Top Image: Me

Bottom Image: Liviu Iftode

Video: To get a better sense of what the Rutgers researchers are doing, watch their graduate student, Jeffrey Bickford, demonstrate smartphone security threats:

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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