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As cellphones do more, they become targets of mischief

world Updated: Jul 18, 2013 22:57 IST
Brad Stone
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Mobile phones are becoming more like personal computers. That means they are becoming more vulnerable to traditional computer menaces like hackers and viruses.

This year, the Russian anti-virus company Kaspersky Lab reported on a new malicious program that stole money by taking over Nokia phones and making small charges to the owners’ wireless accounts.

Last month, an Australian student created an experimental worm that hopscotched across “jailbroken” iPhones, which are phones altered to run software Apple has not authorized. The mischievous worm did not cause any damage; it just installed a photo of the ‘80s pop star Rick Astley. But to security experts, it suggested that attacks on iPhones are possible.

Where there are perceived security threats, there are always entrepreneurs and investors looking to capitalize on them – and build profitable businesses. This month Khosla Ventures, a prominent Silicon Valley venture capital firm, led an investment group that injected $5.5 million into a fledgling security startup called Lookout.

Lookout, based in San Francisco, was previously a consulting firm called Flexilis run by graduates of the University of Southern California. Now it wants to be the security giant of the mobile world, similar to the role Symantec plays in the PC market.

This year, Lookout began testing security software for phones running the Windows Mobile and Android operating systems, and it will soon introduce security applications for the BlackBerry and iPhone. The software protects phones against rogue programs and gives phone owners the ability to remotely back up and erase the data on their phones. A basic version of the software is free, while the company plans to charge a monthly subscription for a version with more features.

“It feels a lot like it did in 1999 in desktop security,” said John Hering, Lookout’s 26-year-old chief executive, who does research demonstrating security vulnerabilities in phones.

Lookout represents the latest attempt to build a new business that capitalizes on the surge of smartphones. Thousands of companies making mobile games and shopping tools have sprung up in the last two years as the iPhone in particular has taken off. Lookout’s founders and backers concede that for now, snoops and bad guys pose much less of a threat to cellphones than to PCs.

But they believe there is an immediate need for software that protects a phone’s data, from e-mail to corporate information, and they say current systems do not work when a family or business has multiple types of cell phones on various wireless networks.