Are smart phones tops on hacker hit lists?

As the world becomes more mobile, will attackers abandon the tethered desktop in favor of handheld devices as the target of choice for malware?

Is the desktop passé? With the growing popularity and functionality of mobile devices, will people give up their tethered PCs and Macs for the freedom of wireless handhelds? And if they do, what will this mean for cybersecurity?

The venerable desktop PC remains the target of choice for exploits today and millions still are being herded into botnets as powerful platforms for launching attacks. However, there is some evidence of a shift with an increase in malicious code masquerading as legitimate applications for Google Android smart phones. Until now, smart phones and other handheld devices have been more or less ignored by hackers, not because they were particularly secure or difficult to crack, but because they just weren’t worth the trouble. But the math might be changing.

The move away from tethered devices is well under way in telecommunications. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in December that 26.6 percent of U.S. households relied exclusively on wireless phones in the first half of 2010, up more than two percentage points from late 2009. Among adults between the ages of 25 and 29 years, the percentage was a whopping 51 percent, and in the age brackets on either side, it was 40 percent.


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Given the convergence of cellular phones and computers, it is not unreasonable to ask if America is likely to give up its desktop PCs as well. There are no similar statistics for this, but the consensus seems to be no; at least for now.

“We do not believe the desktop is going away,” said Bobby Caudill of Adobe Systems, a company that pays close attention to the format in which its customers are viewing content. Desktops will represent a smaller percentage of screens as other formats grow, but their absolute numbers are not shrinking, he said. “There are things you can do on a desktop that you just can’t do on a cell phone.”

Full-sized and full-featured keyboards, the size and resolution of monitors, and the space available for memory all give the desktop computer an advantage in the home and office, although laptops often are used interchangeably to provide both mobility and ease of use.

This will continue to make desktop PCs high-value targets. Not only do they have known vulnerabilities and well understood software, they tend to have more bandwidth available in their connections and are likely to access valuable and proprietary data because they are routinely used in the enterprise, all of which makes them attractive to criminals.

It is easy to foresee a time in the not-too-distant future when individuals and households will begin forgoing desktop PCs in favor of smaller devices. But well after this shift begins, desktop PCs are likely to retain their hold in the enterprise where office workers will continue to use them.

The upshot is that the threat to desktops is not likely to change any time soon and the threats to handheld devices are likely to increase.

One bit of good news is that the proliferation of mobile applications and the move to cloud computing will to a degree minimize the differences between platforms so far as security goes. The point of interaction between devices and the information being accessed will be in the cloud and on the Web, so security should become increasingly similar for both classes of device.

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