Do Handhelds Need Virus Protection?

SAN FRANCISCO (06/29/2000) - The fight is on to provide virus protection for handheld devices--though there hasn't been a single virus written for any handheld platform.

McAfee.com Corp. on Tuesday announced that it would provide virus protection for handhelds--including any product using the Palm OS--with its Wireless Security Center service. Also here at PC Expo, rival Symantec Corp. demonstrated its prototype Palm-based antivirus product, announced on June 8 but not yet slated for release.

The two companies' standard antivirus products, Network Associates Inc.'s McAfee VirusScan and Symantec's Norton Antivirus, lead the competitive field of PC-based products, but these two announcements mark the first move by any antivirus company into the handheld market.

Both companies readily point out that viruses do not yet exist for Palms, Pocket PCs or any other handhelds. "At this point, it's all speculation," says Laura Garcia-Manrique, Product Manager at Symantec. There's "no clear indication" of anyone writing viruses for the handheld platform, agrees Srivats Sampath, CEO and President of McAfee.com.

So why these products?

Both companies want to be prepared for what they see as an inevitable development. Sampath likens the situation to the Catch-22 of a terrorist threat. You can prepare and warn people ahead of time and risk sparking unnecessary panic (as antivirus vendors did when they introduced protections against ActiveX viruses, which never materialized). Or you choose the wait-and-see model and risk a lot of pain and suffering (does the name "Melissa" ring a bell?).

Alternative Approaches

The two rivals are taking different tacks to address the so-far-theoretical risks.

Symantec's unnamed and unpriced Palm prototype resides on the device and uses a miniaturized "scalpel" version of its scanning engine to check Palm applications for native viruses.

McAfee.com's model, on the other hand, places an application of approximately 250KB on the host PC and a node of about 3KB on the device to enable communication.

Like Symantec's product, McAfee.com's is a modified version of its PC-based scanner, but it diverges in that it is scaled to search for Windows viruses while a handheld device syncs with a PC, rather than searching for Palm-based viruses. Given that writing PC viruses is currently much easier than writing Palm-based viruses, McAfee.com's approach seems the more practical.

Mcfee.com's Wireless Security Center service costs $90 per year (or $60 for a limited time) and includes other features besides the virus scanner, such as a software compatibility checker.

Carriers for PC Viruses?

Though it is possible that viruses could be written for the Palm OS and damage the data held in those devices, the real concern is that handhelds will become "carriers" for moving viruses between PCs, the way humans may carry viruses without showing symptoms.

In addition, handhelds running the Pocket PC operating system may pose greater risks. For one thing, they can work with VBScript, the programming language in which the "ILoveYou" virus was written.

McAfee.com's product works with Pocket PC devices; Symantec is currently researching a Pocket PC version, but has not disclosed any specific plans.

Other potential back doors for viruses open when a handheld swaps files or applications through wireless technology or infrared beaming, but those threats are not addressed by either product. Today, says McAfee.com's Sampath, the vulnerability lies in syncing with PCs.

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