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Viruses May Come Crawling to Phones Soon

If you’re reading this, chances are that you’ve probably dealt with at least one outbreak of virus infection on your computer at some point. Why is it then that these despised little pieces of code don’t attack mobile phones even when they’re now ubiquitous? In the US, mobile phone penetration is at about 80 per cent. Back home, the percentage may not be so large, but the sheer absolute number definitely is. The mobile subscriber base in India is close to some 360 million users. About 100 million of these are data-capable phones. Yet, there has not been a major or catastrophic outbreaks in the mobile realm. A recent science magazine research team set about trying to find out why this is so and what kind of scenarios to expect if and when such an outbreak does take place.

The researchers studied calling and mobility data of six million anonymous users in the US. What they found was that the highly fragmented nature of market of operating systems is what has prevented an outbreak so far. The only type of phone that is susceptible to a virus attack is one that runs an operating system – a smartphone. Considering that even in these difficult times, the growth of smartphones is 150 per cent annually, the time is not far when we see a full-fledged virus attack. But the study also predicts that viruses will pose a serious threat only once a single mobile operating system’s market share grows sufficiently large. Once such a suitable environment is created for viruses, they can spread in two ways — Bluetooth and MMS. This might remind you of a time around a few years ago when a Bluetooth virus was doing the rounds locally. The virus was actually a worm written for mobile phones running the Symbian operating system. So back then, we had lots of 6600s being infected with this pesky little thing. The worm called Caribe, was rated ‘low risk’ by McAfee since the worm activity only reduced battery life. The next batch of viruses may not be so harmless.

For a virus to be spread through Bluetooth, it needs to be within a 10 to 30 meter radius of another Bluetooth-enabled phone. MMS proliferating viruses are not so restricted in their spread. Like computer viruses, they spread using the address book of the device and a network connection. The bad news is that hybrid viruses are also conceivable and these will pose the most significant threat. An interesting finding of the study showed that while Bluetooth viruses will eventually spread to all phones, their progress will be slow. This is because it depends on human behavioral and mobility patterns. So the spread will be just like an actual medical disease outbreak. This brings a glimmer of hope, since there would be ample time to deploy counter measures like antivirus. Studies such as this one are classified under computational social science. They not only help in increasing the state of preparedness, but also help us find naturally occurring patterns in human behavior.