Georgia Tech researchers have received a $450,000 NSF grant to boost security of iPhones, BlackBerries and other smartphones and the wireless networks on which they run. And it’s those networks where the researchers are really zeroing in.
The researchers are looking into ways wireless carriers such as AT&T and Verizon can detect malware on devices and clean up the devices before they do further damage.
"While a single user might realise that a phone is behaving differently, that person probably won’t know why," says Patrick Traynor, assistant professor at Georgia Tech’s School of Computer Science, in a statement. "But a cell phone provider may see a thousand devices behaving in the same way and have the ability to do something about it."
The issue of smartphone malware attacks has gained fresh attention this week in light of a couple of jailbroken iPhone malware attacks, including one that replaced users’ wallpaper with a picture of singer Rick Astley.
Security watchers have been monitoring smartphone threats for years, but haven’t had a lot of real action until recently in the form of attacks in the wild. F-Secure chief security advisor Patrik Runald said that, "In a way, we’ve already seen more serious vulnerabilities in the iPhone in a year and a half than we’ve seen in the whole life of Symbian and Windows mobile OSes. It shows the difficulty of squeezing these operating systems into small phones and making sure you only have the necessary parts that are required for the phone to work."
The Georgia Tech researchers echo those sentiments in that they point out that malware writers have largely ignored cellphones that were specialty devices but are licking their chops over smartphones based on more general computer operating systems. One problem, they say, is that smartphones typically aren’t equipped with antivirus and other such computer security tools.
That’s why they’re targeting the carriers themselves in an effort to crack down on mobile device security. The researchers are developing remote repair techniques that would enable carriers to clean up devices with little or no involvement by the end user. Such methods might require temporarily disabling some of the phone’s functionality, such as the ability to download apps.
Georgia Tech is going to build out a cellular network test bed to try out its remote repair techniques.