Security experts: It's not easy to hack mobile phones

A Tacoma, Washington, family is claiming the mobile phones it uses have been taken over by hackers, who are turning them on at will, capturing conversations and manipulating the mobile phone camera.

The story of the Kuykendall family, as reported in the Tacoma News Tribune last week, seems an unlikely one, with tales of how they believe their cell phones, as well as those owned by other families, have been taken over and cell-phone cameras mysteriously turned on and off. While the mystery of the Kuykendall family's cell-phone experience isn't fully explained, people are wondering whether such events are even possible. Security experts say yes -- but still in the realm of the unlikely.

Security experts from IBM, McAfee and Symantec all agree that mobile phones of virtually any type can be broken into and maliciously controlled, though it takes a high degree of sophistication to do it.

"It's definitely possible but still something that is limited to a very sophisticated attacker," says Neel Mehta, team lead in the advanced research group at IBM's Internet Security Systems Division.

Mehta said malicious code to take over the phone could be sent to the intended victim in the guide of a picture or audio clip. Once the victim clicked on it, however, the malware to control the phone would be installed. Many in the industry refer to this as "snoopware."

This type of cell phone hijacking, enabling the attacker to manipulate the microphone and camera, remains "a very rare occurrence in the field," said Paul Miller, managing director of mobile security at Symantec.

However, he noted that J2EE-styled malware such as the "Red Browser" for sending SMS messages, believed to have originated in Russia, is known to exist, and has been used typically to defraud the victim, particular in Europe. He added the number of viruses targeting smart phones and feature-based cell phones remains low, roughly one in the mobile realm for every 500 viruses targeting PCs, he noted.

Miller also pointed out that there are 'spouse-monitoring tools" that can be obtained on the Internet to snoop on phone use, and some pure hacker varieties of this are starting to appear as well.

McAfee had a similar perspective on hijacking of cell phones, whether feature-added voice phones with cameras or the newer breed of computer-based smartphones, agreeing it can happen but appears to be a rare occurrence.

"People aren't expecting any trouble with mobile phones and in general, it's been a safe tool," says Jan Volzke, senior manager in mobile security at McAfee. But having your cell phone hacked "is possible though unlikely."

Volzke said the ways this might be done would depend on someone deliberately tampering with the cell phone by gaining physical access to it, or possibly tricking the cell phone user into downloading of malicious software through Bluetooth infrared or other means.

Once installed, that Trojan, acting like a small application, would let the attacker remotely control the phone and its features, such as cameras and microphones.

However, Volzke added this kind of attack remains highly unusual and is regarded as likely targeted at the specific individual using the cell phone rather than a mass attack against an entire cell-phone population base.

A Verizon Wireless spokesman said the situation concerning the Kuykendall family, couldn't occur on a CDMA wireless network. Jeffrey Nelson, executive director corporate communications for the carrier, based in Basking Ridge, N.J., says: "As any responsible wireless service provider should, we're investigating to best understand what may have happened in this particular situation, and whether it's even theoretically possible. At this point, we don't believe our customers are in any way vulnerable to the kind of remote hacking you describe."

Yet Nelson declined to give any explanation of why Verizon thinks that. And in response to a request for a technical expert to explain it, he emailed back: "sorry, don't have anybody."

Network World Senior Editor John Cox contributed to this story.

Join the PC World newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.
Rocket to Success - Your 10 Tips for Smarter ERP System Selection
Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Ellen Messmer

Network World
Show Comments

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Matthew Stivala

HP OfficeJet 250 Mobile Printer

The HP OfficeJet 250 Mobile Printer is a great device that fits perfectly into my fast paced and mobile lifestyle. My first impression of the printer itself was how incredibly compact and sleek the device was.

Armand Abogado

HP OfficeJet 250 Mobile Printer

Wireless printing from my iPhone was also a handy feature, the whole experience was quick and seamless with no setup requirements - accessed through the default iOS printing menu options.

Azadeh Williams

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

A smarter way to print for busy small business owners, combining speedy printing with scanning and copying, making it easier to produce high quality documents and images at a touch of a button.

Andrew Grant

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

I've had a multifunction printer in the office going on 10 years now. It was a neat bit of kit back in the day -- print, copy, scan, fax -- when printing over WiFi felt a bit like magic. It’s seen better days though and an upgrade’s well overdue. This HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 looks like it ticks all the same boxes: print, copy, scan, and fax. (Really? Does anyone fax anything any more? I guess it's good to know the facility’s there, just in case.) Printing over WiFi is more-or- less standard these days.

Ed Dawson

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

As a freelance writer who is always on the go, I like my technology to be both efficient and effective so I can do my job well. The HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 Inkjet Printer ticks all the boxes in terms of form factor, performance and user interface.

Michael Hargreaves

Windows 10 for Business / Dell XPS 13

I’d happily recommend this touchscreen laptop and Windows 10 as a great way to get serious work done at a desk or on the road.

Featured Content

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?