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PDA Users Can Expect Viruses in Their Future

February 22, 2001|MARK A. KELLNER |

"Paranoia," Paul Simon famously sang, "strikes deep in the heartland. But I think it's all overdone. Exaggerating this, exaggerating that, they just have no fun."

Some qualified paranoia might be in order for users of Palm-based personal digital assistants such as the Palm devices, Handspring Visor and Sony Clie, as well as for users of Microsoft-based Pocket PC devices such as the HP Jornada, Casio EM-125 and Compaq iPaq H3650. Although the makers swear up and down that the risks of virus attacks are slight, you never know.

Indeed, the possibility of an increase in attacks on hand-helds is likely in the coming years. For one thing, there are more and more of the devices being sold. NPD Intellect, a market research firm in Port Washington, N.Y., reported that $1.03 billion worth of PDAs were sold last year, more than double 1999's figure of $436.5 million.

In terms of unit growth, manufacturers sold 3.5 million devices in 2000, more than 2 1/2 times the 1999 figure of 1.3 million. Palm OS devices from Handspring Inc. and Palm Corp. account for about 86% of sales; the balance is held by Pocket PC units.

Having a larger installed base would certainly attract the attention of mischievous souls. With PDA sales rapidly rising and PC sales slowing, the new field is a potential target. Add the connectivity of PDAs to combination units and phones with wireless Internet capabilities, and hand-held devices could be next on the attack list.

"By acting early enough, perhaps we can prevent the situation that is currently going on in the PC world," said Mikko Hyppnoen, anti-virus research manager for F-Secure Corp. in Helsinki, Finland. "If reactive PC anti-virus programs with real-time updates would have been available in 1986, we would not have 50,000 PC viruses now."

Hyppnoen believes that viruses and so-called Trojan horse programs are threats to PDAs. A virus is designed to attack a computer and to replicate itself; a Trojan horse merely is a destructive program in disguise.

The first Trojan horse to hit Palm devices, Hyppnoen said, was code named "Liberty" and became known in August. It erased all the programs on a Palm PDA and was disguised as a "GameBoy emulator" that let users "crack" security codes on games.

The first Palm virus, Phage, hit about six weeks later, Hyppnoen said. It was designed to overwrite files on a Palm device.

Palm says these claims are much ado about nothing.

"Palm is aware that two anti-virus firms stated that they have discovered the first Palm OS-based virus, called 'Phage,' that may be destructive to data on Palm hand-helds. Palm does not condone the use of our OS for creating or distributing potentially destructive software," the firm said in a prepared statement.

"We are currently investigating this issue, and have been unable to find any reports of [any] Palm user data actually being damaged by this virus," the statement added.

Palm and Microsoft Corp. say that hand-helds running their respective operating systems are designed to resist such attacks.

"There are safeguards built into the Palm OS to protect that user data on many levels, and this makes Palm hand-helds by nature more secure from suffering damage from viruses," Palm said.

Microsoft spokeswoman Nancy Redden said that "pocket" versions of its Word and Excel products don't allow the execution of macros, micro-programs that can be home to viruses. She said there are also safeguards against using certain scripts on Pocket PCs, and compiled software cannot be automatically installed on a Pocket PC from a Web site.

Computer Associates offers a free anti-virus program for Palm OS devices, available at:

Symantec Corp., which maintains an Anti-Virus Research Center in Santa Monica, has released a public beta of an anti-virus program for Palm devices. It's available at

And for Pocket PCs, a free anti-virus program--AVX for Windows CE--can be downloaded at:


Mark A. Kellner is editor at large for Government Computer News and hosts "Mark Kellner on Computers" at from 5 to 6 p.m. Thursdays.

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