Unless mobile device security is vastly improved, smartphones and tablets are expected to become a significant launching pad for distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks against corporate websites, a research firm says.
The lack of security on the majority of mobile devices, coupled with the rising bandwidth and processing power, makes them a platform ripe for hackers to compromise, Javelin Strategy & Research says.
In addition, launching DDoS attacks from mobile devices would require less technical skills than those used last year to disrupt the websites of several major U.S. financial institutions.
"There's not very many reasons why [mobile DDoS] can't happen," Javelin analyst Al Pascual said Thursday.
Indeed, other researchers reported last year finding Android malware that could be used to launch DDoS attacks. Dr. Web, a Russian antivirus and security firm, was the first to report finding a Trojan designed for that purpose, says Rivalhost, which provides managed Web hosting.
The malware, dubbed Android.DDoS.1.origin, was disguised as a Google Play app and would take the victim to the Google store in order to divert suspicion. In reality the app communicated with a hacker-controlled server and stayed idle until it received instructions via SMS that identified the server and port the app was to bombard with information packets, Rivalhost said.
Separately, McAfee reported finding that a common DDoS tool called Low Orbit Ion Cannon (LOIC) had been redesigned for the Android platform. An Anonymous group in Latin America promoted the porting technique, which required no programming skills.
[See related: Mobile security threats are heating up]
While no DDoS attacks have been linked to mobile devices, Pascual is convinced it's only a matter of time. A recent Javelin survey found that less than a third of mobile devices in the U.S. had security software, which meant more than 102 million devices were unprotected.
Android is particularly vulnerable because of the many online stores distributing apps for the platform. Stores outside the U.S. have become significant sources for malware.
In addition, device manufacturers and wireless carriers are slow to release new versions of the operating system, leaving users more vulnerable to attack.
While it would take thousands of smartphones to equal the attack volume of compromised servers used in the latest bank attacks, such large-scale DDoS are not in the majority. In a report released last February, Radware found that three-quarters of attacks were less than 1Gbps in bandwidth. The lower bandwidth attacks tend to target the application layer of Web servers, rather than focus on taking down networks.
Attacks originating from mobile devices would be more difficult to stop without disrupting service to site visitors, Pascual says. For example, banks often locate where an attack is coming from, typically outside the U.S., and then diverts the bogus traffic.
With mobile devices, the attack could theoretically come from thousands of compromised devices in the same region or country as a bank's customers, making it difficult for the bank to divert traffic without disrupting service.
"It's going to make it much more difficult when these devices are coming from the same exact place as your actual customers live," Pascual says.
To make it more difficult for hackers to compromise mobile devices, banks and retailers should educate customers about security on smartphones and tablets, Pascual says. In addition, organizations need to pressure carriers and manufacturers to release software updates quickly.
Such efforts will likely increase as carriers roll out apps to turn smartphones into electronic wallets. For example, mobile wallet apps are available for Android smartphones today from Verizon Wireless, T-Mobile and AT&T. The apps are only available to customers in Austin, Texas, and Salt Lake City.
As the apps get rolled out nationwide, security will have to be addressed at a much larger scale, Pascual said.
Read more about wireless/mobile security in CSOonline's Wireless/Mobile Security section.