Friday, September 1, 2000

Pocket PC Viruses: Myth or looming threat?


By Jason Carter

Is a virus lurking on the doorstep of your Pocket PC waiting for the perfect moment to steal your files and destroy your favorite device? Has it already arrived? The simple answer is no. Is it coming? Probably, so you had best be prepared.

The good news

At the moment, the Pocket PC is, by all accounts, virus free. Though rumors exist, there are no confirmed instances of a virus related to the Pocket PC. This is, in part, due to the fact that the Pocket PC currently presents some lingering problems for virus writers.

First, virus executables, like normal programs, need to be compiled for a specific type of processor. Compilation is the process by which a programmer's code is translated into a machine language that your computer can understand. Viruses compiled for the Pocket PC wouldn't execute on a desktop PC processor and vice-versa. Beyond that, a virus compiled for the Cassiopeia wouldn't necessarily run on an iPAQ because they also run on different processors. This goes a long way to combat a universal type of virus that infects desktops and all Pocket PCs alike.

The other popular option for virus writers is to use interpreted code, like VBScript or JScript. Programs such as Internet browsers and email clients can run these programs without requiring any compilation whatsoever. This same method gave us the ever-popular Love Bug virus. Presently, these programming methods are limited in terms of the actions they can perform on the Pocket PC.

For example, a gentleman on one of Microsoft's news groups was recently trying to find a way to create a folder on the Pocket PC using JScript. He found that there's no support for such actions currently, and no one reports that such support is coming (what is really needed is a version of Windows Scripting Host made for the Pocket PC). These types of limitations make a pocket version of the Love Bug virus unlikely.

The bad news

Anyone that has followed the evolution of computer viruses knows that even as you read this article, somewhere a virus writer is probably working diligently to find a creative way to infect the Pocket PC. Sadly, it's a challenge that attracts many who seek to prove their abilities at the expense of the rest of us. Even as users are attracted to the Pocket PC because of its continually advancing computing capabilities, these same capabilities make it increasingly more vulnerable to a virus attack. As you increase the device's complexity and abilities, you also raise the level of risk. It's the price you pay.

You should also bear in mind that the threat is not limited to the Pocket PC itself. As more Pocket PCs interact with each other (via Infrared) and with the Internet (via wireless technologies), they become a threat to the networks and desktops they interface with. Not long ago, floppy diskettes presented a major problem for desktop PCs because they often acted as carriers for viruses. Pocket PCs could soon pose the same threat.