iPhone’s security: beware of your best friend!

iPhone’s security: beware of your best friend!

Axelle Apvrille
Axelle Apvrille

Axelle Apvrille, senior mobile antivirus analyst and researcher from Fortinet FortiGuard Labs, on mobile malware in action.

Mobile malware remains for the most part an unknown phenomenon to the general public. Many people are just unaware that it exists, with responses like: “No, you’re kidding, my iPhone can’t get infected!” to suggestions of viruses on their precious Apple products. Those who are aware mostly consider it as a minor issue, with ideas such as: “There are only very few viruses on mobile phones,” a sentence which is equivalent of saying: “there are no risks”.

However, mobile malware is becoming a real phenomenon, which requires caution.

The iPhone connection

Why would malware target iPhones in particular? From a cybercriminal’s perspective, the answer is short and simple; because it is a real consumer success, which can covert in a gold mine.


Apple’s App Store generates millions of dollars, so one can confidently conclude that it will one day be abused and will unintentionally offer malware to the unsuspecting iPhone community.

It has already happened to the Symbian and Android platforms, for which a few malicious applications were unintentionally signed. The damage this time is likely to be even greater than on other platforms, because of the iPhone’s popularity and the general belief that the Apple Mac environment is safe.

iPhone’s connectivity is another important reason to attract new malware. iPhones are particularly easy to use to access the internet. According to AdMob, one of the world’s largest mobile advertising networks, 40% of all online advertising requests come from iPhones, as of May 2010.

This opens up the iPhone to a wider variety of internet vulnerabilities, as malware can be downloaded from infected or malicious websites. And once an attack infiltrates your iPhone, the consequences can be unpleasant, costly or even more.


Up close and personal

Imagine that your trusty personal assistant betrays you. Indeed, this is comparable to what mobile malware can make your iPhone do. Your iPhone has your closely guarded personal information, including photographs, contact database, possibly your credit card details, banking information, email exchanges, personal address, and a lot more.
It also connects you to tens if not hundreds of internet applications that make your life easier. So now, imagine all this information falling into unscrupulous hands, a psychotic stalker, or becoming public information overnight.

Consider the scenario in which the evening tabloid team barges into your living room and exposes your life publicly overnight. This is exactly what mobile spyware can do once it has entrenched itself in your iPhone; this insidious, crafty malware can secretly tap your phone calls, record and transfer SMS, MMS and email messages, locate you geographically, listen to your surroundings, take pictures, downloads contacts, log activity… or steal your online banking credentials like the infamous Eeki worm did.

The potential damage is endless and apart from organisations such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, only few people really take this matter seriously.


The battle has just begun

Recently, Fortinet observed a strong increase in new mobile phone spyware. This growth affects all platforms including iPhones, Symbian or Windows Mobile.

Since March 2009, the FortiGuard team has already added detection for nine new mobile malware families. Of course, there are quite probably more to come, in particular with the development and marketing of software suites dedicated to creating mobile phone spyware, with end products being sold for tens to over thousands of dollars.

These naughty companies even advertise publicly, with touted claims they can help with issues such as parental control, employee monitoring or video surveillance, legally or not. As long as end users keep thinking that spying is fine or that they have nothing to hide, spyware will continue to spread. 

Yet even if you have the feeling your life can be 100% transparent and that you have nothing to hide (is this possible?), spyware is still an invasion in human privacy, which takes our humanity back in time.

Maybe we should remember ourselves that even our ancestors felt that privacy was an important thing to protect. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 12 states: “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honor and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.”


How to behave with your iPhone?

At this stage, iPhones’ and other mobile phones’ security is only in its infancy, and like with children, perhaps one of its highest needs is education. Yes, your iPhone must be educated, by mobile operators, phone vendors, security companies and yourself.

Here are some guidelines on how to teach it caution and how to behave:

  • Would you let your child answer a stranger? No. So, do not open unknown SMS or MMS.
  • Before buying your child a new game, wouldn’t you check if it’s suitable for his/her age or if other parents consider it as an interesting game? You probably try to. The same applies to your phone; gather as much information as possible before downloading an unknown application (search for comments from other users, scan it online against viruses etc).
  • Do you inoculate your child against polio? Then, you might consider installing an anti-virus on your mobile phone, or at least check anti-virus reports regularly.
  • Imagine a highly dangerous virus was circulating in your child’s school. Wouldn’t you keep him/her away, until any risks have disappeared? Similarly, do not connect your iPhone to an infected computer and run anti-virus software on your PC or laptop to make sure it is malware-free before connecting your iPhone for synchronisation.
  • When your child is harmed, don’t you report it to some authority (school, police, medical doctor)? Do the same with your phone. Do not fear to report suspicious activities to your operator, your bank, consumer groups, anti-virus companies or in worse cases to the nearby police station. The more we are aware, the more we can all fight against criminality.

FortiGuard Subscription Services provides comprehensive Unified Threat Management (UTM) security solutions to organisations capabilities to enable protection against content and network level threats. http://www.fortiguard.com/

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