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Illustration by Emilio Rivera III.

The End of Innocence
Handhelds get hit by a Trojan Horse virus

Palm users are promiscuous sorts. Even if you aren't one yourself, you've probably seen them, engaging in a flirtatious, handheld tango known as beaming. One Palmie spots another and nature takes its course. A smile, an introduction and suddenly two complete strangers are aligning their infrared ports and stripping their palmtops bare in a frenzied bout of carefree software swapping.

But the age of easy beaming with multiple partners may be coming to an end. Last week the Palm operating system (OS) was struck by its first virus.

The bug, known as Liberty Crack, seemed innocent enough. When patient zero picked it up in an Internet chat room, he thought he was getting a free version of Liberty, a program that lets Palm owners play games written for Nintendo's Gameboy. Instead he downloaded a Trojan Horse, a type of virus that sneaks past digital defenses by posing as something else. Once inside the handheld, the virus deleted almost all applications (such as games, maps and other third party software), although it left the Palm's essential PDA functions, such as the address book and calendar, intact.

While the hack was a first, "we shouldn't get carried away with scaremongering," says Joe Sweeney, Asia-Pacific research director with research firm Gartner. Incapable of replicating and spreading in the manner of PC viruses like the Love Bug or Melissa, Liberty Crack was short-lived. The few people that were hit were able to regain lost data the next time they "synched" their handheld with their computer.

That doesn't mean that the attack can be ignored. Palm's selling point has been simplicity, and one happy consequence of limited functionality is limited viruses. But handhelds are getting smarter. "As we move from simple Palm devices to second-generation PDAs, such as the PocketPC, we're going to see a lot more viruses and they're going to get more sophisticated," says Sweeney. PocketPCs use a stripped-down version of Microsoft's Windows OS, enabling them to run many of the programming tools beloved of virus authors — including Visual Basic Script, the language used to craft the Love Bug. "It's a virus writers' heaven," says Sweeney.

The biggest threat is not to individuals but companies. Handheld users routinely back-up their data on a PC. That makes it easy to recover lost files — but even easier for a dirty device to upload a virus to the corporate network. Handhelds could become "carriers" of viruses, spreading them from machine to machine, network to network. Smart phones and wireless e-mail pagers that can connect to a network remotely will only exacerbate the problem. Gartner expects that by 2005 over 10% of cyber-attacks on leading businesses will be instigated by an infected mobile device. The contagion could also spread in the other direction, with hackers mounting attacks on servers to cripple the handhelds that connect to it.

There is good news. Anti-virus software manufacturers were on the case even before Liberty Crack struck. McAfee, the maker of VirusScan, already sells Wireless Security Center, a program that resides on a PC and blocks viruses from being uploaded. Meanwhile Symantec, which makes the popular Norton anti-virus software, is working on a tiny Palm-based program that would scan the handheld for native viruses such as Liberty Crack. However, neither program will prevent users from swapping viruses by infrared. Until they do, just be careful who you're beaming with.

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