Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Next Frontier: Auto-Install Cell Phone Viruses

Hi everyone,

I recently posted a version of my "safe e-mail practices" I hand out to all of my students (you can read it here), but this has not seemed to help many people (hint: you have to follow the safe e-mail practices in order to benefit from them).

Still, in the interest of trying to help, I'd like to talk about the next big thing that hackers are going to be working on breaking into and is currently a HUGE WIDE OPEN DOOR into your cell phone.

Multimedia messages

A quick discussion with a few smartphone users revealed some pretty worrying facts. (1) You may not know what a multimedia message is. (2) You probably have multimedia messages set to auto-download. (3) You think Apples can't get viruses.

Multimedia messages are text messages sent along your data package. If you ever send any files (such as pictures) to your friends, then they are sent as multimedia messages. Most cell phones have options to send texts to more than one person as a "group conversation", and those will show up as multimedia messages as well. And if you send a particularly long text, your cell phone may automatically (you can change the setting) convert it to a multimedia message instead of sending the equivalent of several text messages.

I've always approached multimedia messages with a PC mindset and only opened them when I was expecting a multimedia message (this tends to frustrate your friends by the way). But if you think of a multimedia message as an attachment or link to an e-mail, then why on Earth would you download it without questioning its authenticity?

Because you're safe.

I was frankly surprised when I found out that to-date, hackers have not found a way to infect your system JUST by opening multimedia messages (how stuff works explains more here, including ways they CAN infect your system). I would think that the fact that the picture shows up would mean it is on your system, and ready to do some damage, but apparently hackers haven't gotten around that yet.

Still, as the proliferation of smartphones continues exponentially, it's really only a matter of time before they get around this. See the fact that even Apple has removed the claims that their iOS is safe from hackers and viruses (yes-apples-machines-really-can-get-viruses).

For the record, I fall firmly in the camp that Apple was never really safe, it was just unappealing. Up until recently, the world relied on PCs, and its only with the recent explosion of Apples that anyone outside the visual design world thought Apple was worth breaking into (probably a gross exaggeration, I'm sure some people enjoyed Apples before they became trendy).

So there are a few things that you can do to help safeguard your phones.
  1. Never follow a link or download an attachment to a text message unless you trust the source AND they've explained what it is somewhat specifically*.
  2. Send an explanation text before sending a multimedia message. I.e. If you want to send a picture of your cat, send a text saying, "Hey, about to send you a picture of Fluffy."
  3. Don't forward chain-texts (this is spam even if you like the message). If I was a hacker, I'd hide behind seemingly innocuous chain-texts and let others do the work of spreading the virus for me. Plus, chain messages clog networks and cause slow-down.
    (Note: this is also why you shouldn't just share every story that catches your fancy on Facebook. Check to see if it is a real story or not, if the story urges action on your part, it may be a form of trolling. Check snopes.com for any suspicious messages or just Google the story along with "scam" or "hoax").
  4. Check your text message settings. 
    1. Know if long texts are auto-converted to multimedia and consider using e-mail, warning the recipient of the upcoming multimedia text (see #2), or turning this feature off if you have enough texts in your plan to handle it. 
    2. You can send texts to multiple recipients without sending group conversation texts, so unless you want everyone to interact with each other, switch over to "Individual Message" after selecting the recipients.
    3. Turn off the "automatically retrieve multimedia messages" setting so you can control if you open a multimedia message or not.
 I'm sure there's more, but this is the commonsense approach that I take.

Thanks for reading!

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