Mobile malware is on the march, and Android is target No. 1

The amount of malicious code written for mobile devices, such as smart phones and tablets, jumped by 155 percent in 2011 and has grown more sophisticated, according to a new report from Juniper Networks’ Mobile Threat Center.

At the same time, the target platforms of this malware shifted dramatically away from Java ME devices in favor of the dominant Android operating system.

The trends are not surprising. For years now, mobile malware has been predicted to be the next big thing in cyber threats and the open-platform Android, with its open marketplace for third-party applications, has become an increasingly popular target. But the magnitude of the growth is surprising, said Juniper’s Bob Dix.

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“It’s a direct result of consumer demand,” said Dix, Juniper’s vice president of government affairs and critical infrastructure protection.

Mobile computing devices have become almost ubiquitous, with shipments of smart handsets reaching 1.6 billion in 2011 and tablets reaching nearly 67 million. At the same time, improved functionality, faster network connections and the phenomenal growth in applications for these devices have made them attractive to criminals who now are able to monetize their exploits.

“This is a phenomenon we couldn’t have seen even a few years ago,” Dix said.

It is being compounded by a generational shift in the workplace in which young employees expect to be able to not only access work-related resources with mobile devices, but to use their personal devices for their work. Compounded with applications that enable financial transactions and the fact that few devices are using security technology, it has become “an open invitation to the bad guys,” Dix said.

Spyware makes up the bulk of identified mobile malware, accounting for 63 percent. This captures data from the device for export to criminals who could exploit it. A more direct money-making scheme is the SMS Trojan, which accounts for 36 percent of mobile malware. This is an application that runs in the background to send SMS messages to premium rate numbers. The owner of the numbers receives the payment, which is charged to the user’s account.

The rapidly shifting environment is illustrated by the malware targets. The amount of malware written for Android increased exponentially in 2011, going from 400 identified samples in June to more than 13,000 in December.

In 2010, more than 70 percent of identified malware was written for Java ME, with another 27 percent for Symbian. BlackBerry, Android and Windows Mobile accounted for no more than “other.” In 2011, Android was the top target, with nearly 47 percent of identified malware, and Java ME had dropped to a still respectable 41 percent. Symbian accounted for 11.5 percent.

These figures are clouded, however, by the lack of good data for the Apple iOS platform because of its closed application marketplace. The same openness that has made Android popular with consumers has also made it popular with malware writers.

“This does not necessarily make it fundamentally more secure,” the report says of iOS. “Jailbreaking” the devices to make them open to third-party downloads also makes them susceptible to exploitation. “Further, there are virtually no meaningful endpoint security products for the iOS platform because Apple does not provide developers with the tools to create them.”

Despite the dominance of Android, the amount of malware for Research In Motion’s BlackBerry and Nokia’s Symbian also grew in 2011. Variants of the ZeuS Trojan have been found on BlackBerrys.

A low-tech threat to mobile devices is loss or theft. Juniper offers a suite of mobile-device management capabilities, and data from customers shows that nearly 17 percent used the service to issue a “locate” command in 2011 and nearly 7 percent issued a command to lock the missing device.

Nearly all of these were subsequently unlocked by the owner, although about 1 percent used the service to wipe the lost or stolen device. A little more than 10 percent issued a “scream” command, which causes a device to emit a loud tone and which would either allow the owner to find it, or at least cause a thief to abandon it.

Dix said that tools are available to help protect and manage mobile devices, but that the challenge now is to get users and enterprises to employ them.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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