Money fueling mobile spying programs

Spying programs for mobile phones are likely to grow in sophistication and stealth as the business around selling the tools grows, according to a mobile analyst at the Black Hat conference on Friday.

Many of the spy programs on the market are powerful, but aren’t very sophisticated code, said Jarno Niemela, a senior anti-virus researchers for Finnish security vendor F-Secure, which makes security products for PCs and mobile phones.

But there is increasing evidence that money from selling the tools will create a stronger incentive for more accomplished programmers to get into the game, which could make the programs harder to detect, Niemela said.

Niemela said his prediction follows what has happened with the malware writers in the PC market. Many hackers are now in the business of selling easy-to-use tools to less technical hackers rather than hacking into PCs themselves.

One of the latest tools on the market is Mobile SpySuite, which Niemela believes is the first spy tool generator for mobiles. It sells for US$12,500 and would let a hacker custom-build a spy tool aimed at several models of Nokia phones, Niemela said.

The number of mobile spyware programs pales in comparison to the number of such programs available for PCs. However, mobile spying programs are harder to track, since security companies such as F-Secure don’t see as many samples circulating on the Internet as they do of malicious software for PCs.

Anecdotal evidence has emerged that enterprises may be increasingly encountering mobile spyware on their fleets of phones. The clues have come from companies that are relatively cagey when talking about what they have seen.

“There have been certain cases of corporate customers asking very detailed questions about spy tools and not mentioning why they need the information,” Niemela said.

Some of the more well-known spy programs are Neo-cal land FlexiSpy. Neo-call is capable of secretely forwarding SMS (Short Message Service) text messages to another phone, transmitting a list of phone numbers called, and logging keystrokes. FlexiSpy has a neat, Web-based interface that shows details of call times, numbers and SMSes, and it can even use a phone’s GPS (Global Positioning System) receiver to pinpoint the victim’s location.

Hackers usually need to have access to the phone itself to install the software. And OS manufacturers such as Symbian have enabled security features such as application signing, which is intended to prevent rogue programs from being installed on a phone.

Most rogue spying programs leave traces on the phone, and analysis tools can be used to check a phone’s processes and file system to see if something is there that shouldn’t be, Niemela said.

But there are ways that less technical users can get a hint they’ve been hacked. One simple clue is if a colleague of the victim knows something that they shouldn’t, Niemela said.

Also, mobile spying programs have to transmit their data. If the spy program sends data over GPRS (General Packet Radio Service), the network operator will demand payment. “As long as it has to use a paid channel, it can not escape the operator’s bill,” Niemela said.

Another way is to replace the phone’s SIM card with one that allows for real-time monitoring. SMSes can then be sent to the phone, which in many countries are free to receive. If the monitoring reveals outgoing data traffic after SMSes are received, the phone could be hacked. It’s also possible to check if the GPRS connection icon lights up after a message is received, Niemela said.

Niemela offered some defenses against mobile spyware: Keep the OS up to date, as manufacturers are usually working to counter new devious software. The use of a mobile antivirus program is also prudent, he said. People should also use password protection to block access if someone gets a hold of the device.

Administrators can also regularly “flash” phones to wipe off malware, as well as ensuring that phones only install signed applications.

And when the phone is out of a person’s hands, another option is to put the device in a tamper-proof container. But “for most people, this is way too James Bond,” Niemela said.

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