CYBER EYE

Wireless nets could open up a new world to computer viruses

William Jackson

Oh, to be a virus author these days. The predicted explosion of wireless networking and mobile Internet access could open up a playground for malicious code creation that makes the wired Internet look like a low-tech sandbox.

Studies estimate there will be more than 20 million mobile data users by the end of next year, and more wireless devices than conventional PCs accessing the Internet within five years. They will not be just notebook computers, Palm OS devices or wireless phones. They will be everything from refrigerators to gas meters.

Hype? Probably, but where the Internet is concerned, reality has a way of outstripping hype. Most new cell phones will incorporate the Wireless Application Protocol by the end of this year, and a growing number of vendors will offer products and services for WAP access to the Web.

Bluetooth wireless radio chips, which are becoming the industry standard for wireless personal area networking of peripherals and handheld devices, will expand wireless' reach even further.

Motorola Inc.'s first Bluetooth products include a car kit for auto makers. Motorola expects Bluetooth to integrate all of a vehicle's electronic systems, including door locks and onboard diagnostics, into the driver's personal area network.

Sooner than you think

Imagine that, in the not-too-distant future, your Bluetooth PDA automatically unlocks your car doors as you approach. It consults your schedule to see where you're going, then checks to make sure the tank holds enough gas. Using the car's Global Positioning System to find out where you are, it contacts a Web mapping and traffic service and plots the best route based on current traffic conditions. All this data gets transferred to the dashboard's visual readout by the time you put the key in the ignition.

Imagine also that some hacker uses this Web-WAP-Bluetooth connection to place some malicious code. What if he manages to install the automotive equivalent of BackOrifice in the car's onboard computer? You could have a real mean BackSeat driver in control.

Fantasy? So far. Current viruses aim mostly at Microsoft Windows platforms, and hacker tools are tailored for the Unix server environment. The content conversion performed at WAP gateways and the limited functionality of current mobile devices make it unlikely that you will get a virus on your cell phone through e-mail any time soon.

But as the functionality and storage capacity of mobile devices and remote appliances improve, and as content and applications grow in native wireless formats such as the Handheld Device Markup Language and Wireless Markup Language, interconnected wireless networks will doubtless become attractive targets.

The WAP protocol supports encryption. Bluetooth can provide encryption and frequency hopping, and private-key infrastructures can ensure authentication in wireless transactions. They will all make mobile computing more robust.

But the risks will increase right along with the benefits, and by the time wireless is ready for prime time, the same antivirus technologies will have to be implemented and the same precautions exercised there as in the wired world.

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