Smartphone Virus Outbreak Is a Matter of OS Market Share

Newswise — Computer viruses have yet to spread noticeably through our handheld devices, but a new study finds that a major outbreak is only a matter of time once one of the brand name smartphones reach a 10% market share.

Northeastern University physicist Albert-László Barabási and his co-authors tracked the spreading potential of Bluetooth and multimedia messaging service (MMS) viruses and predict that these viruses will become a real threat to users of smartphones, like iPhone and Blackberry, once an operating system increases its market share.

Published in the latest issue of Science magazine, the authors quantitatively assessed the spreading dynamics of mobile viruses by modeling the location, the mobility and the communication patterns of mobile phone users. In a simulated study, the team used anonymized billing records from a mobile phone provider and tracked the calling patterns and coordinates of the mobile phone tower closest to the user at the time of the call.

"It may seem to many of us that smartphones are everywhere but the truth is that the smartphone user base is not only small, but it is highly fragmented into many small isolated islands, making a major virus outbreak impossible at the moment," said Albert-László Barabási, Distinguished Professor of Physics and Director of the Center for Complex Network Research (CCNR) at Northeastern University. "Once smartphones become more widely used and one of the operating systems increases it market share to a certain percentage, the users of that system will all become susceptible to mobile viruses within a matter of minutes."

Bluetooth and MMS viruses differ in their spatial spreading patterns; the former infects predominantly users in the vicinity of the virus' originating point making its spread rather slow due to human mobility, while the latter is capable of spreading to everyone in the address book of the originating user within minutes. Hybrid viruses " capable of simultaneously using both Bluetooth and MMS connections to spread " are also easy to contain at the moment due to the operating system's small market share and are forced into the slow Bluetooth spreading mode.

"The understanding of the basic spreading patterns presented in our study could help estimate the realistic risk carried by mobile viruses and aid the development of proper measures to avoid the costly impact of major outbreaks," added Pu Wang, Ph.D. candidate at CCNR and lead author of the study. "The rapid growth of the number of smartphones and the growing market share of the operating systems can soon lead to a mobile virus outbreak that will likely overshadow the disruption caused by traditional computer viruses."

In addition to Wang and Barabási, the study was co-authored Marta C. González of Northeastern and César A. Hidalgo of the Center for International Development at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.

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