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The Day the Cell Phones Stood Still

The ultimate "obscene" phone call

This year saw the first honest-to-god cell-phone worm: SymbOS.Cabir, which attacks phones running the Symbian OS. The worm does just two things: First, it spreads via Bluetooth to nearby Symbian cell phones, and it displays the word Caribe on an infected phone's LCD. As with any new worm or virus, the initial response when Cabir showed up this past summer was panic: "Does my phone run Symbian? Where can I get antivirus software for it?"

But hold on. You can't get Cabir by calling someone with an infected phone. The worm spreads only through Bluetooth, which most Symbian phones let you turn off. And there aren't all that many phones that run the Symbian OS in the first place; according to Symbian's Web site ( only 18 models (with 10 more on the way) ran the Symbian OS when Cabir popped up. (Of course, that number still beats the two phones that run the Microsoft Smartphone OS.) In fact, perhaps the diversity in cell phone OSs—most are proprietary and (unlike Symbian and Smartphone) aren't open—ensured that this first cell-phones cyber-attack was relatively mild. Sure, Cabir was (and is) annoying, but then aren't most things associated with cell phones?

On the other hand, the worm isn't entirely harmless. I imagine that Cabir's method of propogation—Bluetooth—can shorten the amount of time you'll get on a fully-charged battery. I can't swear to this because I don't own a Bluetooth-enabled phone, but I do own a Bluetooth-enabled Palm OS device and leaving Bluetooth on most definitely drains that device's battery more quickly than when Bluetooth is off.

All this got me to thinking: Can you imagine what the Cabir presages for the future of mobile viruses? We could fall prey to dialer helpers, cell-phone versions of that Internet browser–related malware known as browser helpers. Victims of browser helpers type in a valid URL, only to find themselves delivered to some other Web site. In a future afflicted with dialer helpers, we might dial one vendor and get another. I can picture it now: "Hello, Avis, I'd like to reserve a car for … What? This is Hertz? Gosh, I'm sorry, I must have dialed the wrong … What's that? You're having a special for former Avis customers? Wow, how convenient!" Of course, it could be way worse. How'd you like to have Gator tracking every call you make and selling those numbers to other companies? Nah, that'd never happen. I hope.

Come to think of it, such a future isn't all that unthinkable. Many modern cell phones include something called enhanced 911, or e911, technology, wherein your cell phone contains Global Positioning System (GPS) circuitry that enables an emergency dispatcher to find you in the event that you dial 911. Sooner or later, someone will get the brilliant idea that hey, now that we can figure out pretty accurately where customers are, why not sell that information to vendors? So there you'll be, walking past Joe's Pizza, and you'll get a text message that says "Hey, Martin Johnson, this is Joe's Pizza—the store just to the left of you! Come on in and show us this text message for 25 percent off a Cholesterol Special. Offer good for 5 minutes." Ugh.

One final thought about the Cabir worm. It occurs to me that a well-placed cell phone virus could make airport waiting lounges and restaurants much quieter, pleasant places. Hmmm ...

TAGS: Security
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