Outlook to phones likely to spur virus writers

Viruses on your cell phone are just a matter of time, say security specialists, following the launch of a Vodafone New Zealand Ltd. service that delivers Microsoft Outlook over its cellular network.

Microsoft Corp., Vodafone Group PLC and Hewlett-Packard Co. announced the deal on Wednesday, and while HP is part of the initial promotion, the service will be available on a range of phones and portable wireless devices, not just HP’s. Microsoft business development manager Steve Haddock expects other wireless carriers to offer the service in the future.

The basis of the service is Microsoft’s MIS (mobile information server) 2002, which includes Outlook Mobile Access, an application that enables users in the field to access Outlook features such as email, contacts, calendar, tasks and intranet applications. MIS 2002 is an advance on the previous version, MIS 2001, in that it enables synchronization between mobile devices and the server.

Microsoft and Vodafone say extensive security measures are in place, but Symantec NZ manager Richard Batchelar says viruses and other security threats to Outlook are as real in the wireless world as in the desktop PC environment. It’s a matter of when, rather than if, viruses begin attacking Outlook Mobile Access and other wireless email and data applications.

Co-Logic E-Secure IT alert service owner Arjen de Landgraaf says sending a text message to a mobile phone is “probably more secure” than sending an email to an email address, but with the development of services such as the MIS 2002-based one “hackers will now target the generic vulnerabilities in mobile phones – it’s happened already and the current level of security isn’t enough to prevent it”.

He says the principle of mobile access to Outlook and other email services is good but vulnerabilities, once identified, will need to be patched, as they are with wired communications.

Vodafone spokesman Don Pointon says the WAP security standard WTLS (wireless transport layer security) covers all WAP transmissions and text messages are incapable of delivering viruses.

He says MOSO – a product similar to the MIS-2002 service – which was developed last year by Vodafone in partnership with Microsoft and Ericsson, is more limited than the MIS 2002-based service as it allows out-of-office workers to access their email via wireless devices, but doesn’t have the proactive alert or synchronization capabilities of MIS 2002.

Vodafone is no longer actively promoting MOSO, he says.