Robert Siciliano Identity Theft Expert
History indicates that we are at the forefront of an era in which criminal hackers develop tools and techniques to steal your money using your own cell phone.
Fifteen years ago, cell phones were so bulky and cumbersome, they had to be carried in bags or briefcases. Then they became chunky, heavy bricks. Calls dropped every other minute. Clearly, cell phones have evolved since then. Today’s cell phone is a lot more than a phone. It’s a computer, one that rivals many desktops and laptops being manufactured today. A cell phone can pretty much do everything a PC can do, including online shopping, banking, and merchant credit card processing.
The personal computer started out slow and stodgy, and was mainly used for things like word processing and solitaire. Today, PCs are fast, multimedia machines, capable of performing amazing tasks.
There are consequences to the rapid evolution of these technologies.
A decade ago, during the slow, dial up era, hackers (and, in the beginning, phreakers) hacked for fun and fame. Many wreaked havoc, causing problems that crippled major networks. And they did it without today’s sophisticated technology.
Meanwhile, the dot-com boom and bust occurred. Then, as e-commerce picked up speed, high speed and broadband connections made it easier to shop and bank online, quickly and efficiently. Around 2003, social networking was born, in the form of online dating services and Friendster. PCs became integral to our fiscal and social lives. We funneled all our personal and financial information onto our computers, and spent more and more of our time on the Internet. And the speed of technology began to drastically outpace the speed of security. Seeing an opportunity, hackers began hacking for profit, rather than fun and fame.
Now, iPhones and other smart phones have become revolutionary computers themselves. For the next generation, the phone is replacing the PC. AT&T recently announced that they’ll be upping the speed of the latest version of their 3G network, doubling download speeds. It has been reported that the next iPhone will have 32 gigabytes. That’s more hard drive than my three year old laptop.
So naturally, criminal hackers are considering the possibilities offered by cell phones today, just as they were looking at computers five years ago.
Two things have changed the game: the speed and advancement of technology and spyware. Spyware was created as a legitimate technology for PCs. Spyware tracks and records social network activities, online searches, chats, instant messages, emails sent and received, websites visited, keystrokes typed and programs launched. It can be the equivalent of digital surveillance, revealing every stroke of the user’s mouse and keyboard. Parents can use spyware to monitor their young children’s surfing habits and employers can make sure their employees are working, as opposed to surfing for porn all day.
Criminal hackers created a cocktail of viruses and spyware, which allows for the infection and duplication of a virus that gives the criminal total, remote access to the user’s data. This same technology is being introduced to cell phones as “snoopware.” Legitimate uses for snoopware on phones do exist: silently recording caller information, seeing GPS positions, monitoring kids’ and employees’ mobile web and text messaging activities. Criminal hackers have taken the snoopware and spyware technology even further. Major technology companies agree that almost any cell phone can be hacked into and remotely controlled. Malicious software can be sent to the intended victim disguised as a picture or audio clip, and when the victim clicks on it, malware is installed.
One virus, called “Red Browser,” was created specifically to infect mobile phones using Java. It can be installed directly on a phone, should physical access be obtained, or this malicious software can be disguised as a harmless download. Bluetooth infared is also a point of vulnerability. Once installed, the Red Browser virus allows the hacker to remotely control the phone and its features, such as the camera and microphone.
While this may sound improbable, I’ve consulted and appeared on television (Tyra Banks and Fox) with an entire family that seems to have been victimized by every aspect of snoopware. The Kuykendalls, of Tacoma, Washington, found that several of their phones had been hijacked in order to spy on them. They say the hacker was able to turn a compromised phone on and off, use the phone’s camera to take pictures, and use the speakerphone as a bug. Ever since the program featuring the Kuykendalls’ story aired and continues to repeat, I’ve received dozens of emails from people around the world who have experienced the same thing. Many of these people seem totally overwhelmed by what has happened to them, and some are beginning to suffer financial losses.
If history is any indication of the future, mobile phones, just like computers, will soon be regularly hacked for financial gain. Prepare for mCrime in the form of credit card fraud, identity theft and data breaches.
Some Internet security software providers are beginning to offer software specifically for mobile phones. In the meantime, identity theft protection services are one line of defense against the latest cybercrime techniques.