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by John E Dunn

Mobile Malware Exaggerated By “Charlatan” Vendors, Says Google Engineer

Nov 24, 20113 mins
Cellular NetworksConsumer ElectronicsData and Information Security

Stinging comments in wake of Android threat reports

Security vendors are behaving like “charlatans and scammers” by peddling antivirus apps to protect consumers from smartphone malware, Google’s open source champion Chris DiBona has said in an uncompromising attack on the industry.

In recent weeks, antivirus vendors including Kaspersky Lab, McAfee and even infrastructure companies Juniper Networks and IBM, have highlighted the claimed menace posed by malware on Android in particular, which might explain the Google engineer’s feistiness.

“Virus companies are playing on your fears to try to sell you bs protection software for Android, RIM and IOS. They are charlatans and scammers,” wrote DiBona in a blog. “IF you work for a company selling virus protection for android, rim or IOS you should be ashamed of yourself.”

“No major cell phone has a ‘virus’ problem in the traditional sense that windows and some Mac machines have seen. There have been some little things, but they haven’t gotten very far due to the user sandboxing models and the nature of the underlying kernels.”

“Yes, a virus of the traditional kind is possible, but not probable. The barriers to spreading such a program from phone to phone are large and difficult enough to traverse when you have legitimate access to the phone,” DiBona said.

Earlier this week, McAfee’s figures showed a 37 percent jump in malware targeting Android in the third quarter of 2011, while Juniper Networks separately described malware on the same platform as quintupling since July of this year, mostly in the form of hijacked apps seeded in online markets.

These reports follow a well-established theme for the year: Android malware is not only increasing but the platform has become the one criminals aim at above all others.

Criticism hasn’t just come from vendors, however, with EU cyberagency ENISA suggesting that the app stores run by competing vendors should move toward an agreed set of security principles. Although Android wasn’t mentioned explicitly, the company’s hitherto open app model clearly falls short of ENISA’s security criteria.

Both sides of this divide probably have a valid point. DiBono is correct to point out that serious mobile malware is still rare beyond third-party app stores in particular regions, and mobile antivirus apps are in any case unproven in their ability to stop these threats.

That point made, mobile malware is still at the proof-of-concept stage and could develop into effective forms based on social engineering without better vetting of app stores. The evidence supports the contention that Google’s Android is the platform criminals see as the easiest to subvert and with the largest user base.