DoCoMo's Java Jive-Talkin' -- Software Viruses For... Cellphones?

Back to Contents of Issue: April 2001

by Daniel Scuka

Besides coughing on it, there's a new way to infect an i-mode handset.

Can i-mode transmit software viruses? Prior to the launch of the i-Appli Java-enabled service, many industry experts would have answered, "Not likely."

But with Java, the phones can now download and execute small programs, and there's a much greater possibility for mayhem on the tiny screen.

Developers here have speculated that malicious Java code could be downloaded as part of a benign Java application simply by visiting the site. It's not too difficult to imagine a small Java program that, once resident on the keitai, would start transmitting empty packets onto the Internet -- running up the subscriber's pay-per-packet monthly bill (the "Monthly Bill Inflator" virus -- annoying and expensive perhaps, but not fatal). We presume that makers are thinking about fail-safe mechanisms on the handsets. Perhaps we'll see additional LEDs that blink whenever the phone is accessing the Net (thus warning the user), or maybe clamshell-style phones will disallow the sending of packets whenever the phone is closed. The 503i phones already prompt the user to approve all downloads.

Further, this could be one reason why DoCoMo is trying to keep the i-Appli details confidential; if a virus writer doesn't know the specific Java class details relating to the 503i phones, he can't write malicious code that could access the hardware (and cause trouble) directly.

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