Architecture and Hardware

Are Handheld Viruses a Significant Threat?

  1. Article
  2. References
  3. Authors
  4. Sidebar: Keeping your Palms Clean of Infection
  5. Sidebar: Anatomy of a Simple Palm Virus
  6. Figure

Since its introduction in 1997, the Palm line of handheld computers has become a popular product choice, with many millions of units sold worldwide. A large number of third-party applications exist, from personal organizer programs to spreadsheet applications, email, and Web browser clients. Many of these programs are low-cost shareware, available for downloading from individual Web sites, centralized Web repositories, or from CD collections.

With such a large number of applications available from disparate sources it is interesting to note that only recently have reports emerged about the first publically disseminated malicious Palm applications. The Trojan-horse Palm program “Liberty,” reported in August 2000, deletes all applications on the handheld. The first virus carrying the Palm program “Phage,” reported in September 2000, infects applications installed on the handheld with copies of itself. Both are rated as low-risk by antivirus companies [3]. At press time neither of these malicious applications were classified as “in the wild”—viruses that exist and are considered to be spreading [4]. We would like to think that the Palm handheld, at least as it is currently used, is not a very attractive proposition to a malicious virus writer.

Palm software is distributed as a serialized Palm resource (PRC) file of the application that can be stored on the user’s local file server/workstation. When the handheld and the local file server/workstation are synchronized (hotsync’d) the PRC file is installed as an executable on the handheld.

A Palm virus spread in this way will have limited success: following initial infection, subsequent spread to other programs is generally limited to the handheld unit alone. Once a program is infected (on the handheld) it must be uploaded to the user’s workstation/file server and distributed from there before it can become a threat to other handheld units. While users regularly synchronize databases (containing application data) on the handheld with their workstation, it is unusual to upload programs since the original backup copies are already saved on the user’s workstation.

It is unlikely that a Palm virus would be accidentally distributed by a developer. Palm applications are typically coded and cross-compiled on a local workstation, generating a PRC file ready for downloading. If a development environment does come in contact with a Palm virus, while it is possible infection may occur on development handhelds (or emulators), it should not transfer to the development PRC files so long as these files are not uploaded from the Palm handheld. Of course, there is always the possibility of a PC virus that infects PRC files with a Palm virus.

Once an infected application is downloaded, the virus can spread within a single handheld quite effectively. The Palm operating system (Palm OS) is designed to indirectly launch applications as the result of certain events. For example, the “Find” operation invokes each application, in turn, requesting a search for a given string within the application’s databases. Other events that lead to indirect invocation include synchronization, alarms, certain operating system preference changes, and soft-reset of the unit.

The paradigm of synchronizing the Palm with a local (or remote) system provides a simple barrier: while an infected program can be installed and spread within a handheld, it cannot easily spread to other programs beyond the handheld unit. With synchronization, Palms tend to be directly infected from the same source; a virus released in an application will be spread only by that application. This will make reporting and isolating the malicious code easier. However, this synchronization barrier fails once handheld units become more connected. Any protocol that facilitates direct communication between Palm handhelds may facilitate the spread of a virus.

Third-party applications providing alternative methods for installing Palm programs are now emerging. For example, a third-party POP/IMAP client runs on the Palm and allows PRC files to be sent and received as Palm email attachments. While the recipient must still explicitly install the attached program, the normal synchronization barrier has been bypassed.

September 1998 saw Palm computing introduce infrared IrDA support in Palm OS Version 3, allowing programs and data to be beamed directly from one handheld to another. Even though this beaming normally requires explicit user authorization by both sender and receiver, it can nevertheless be used to spread infected programs. While we do not know how prevalent the practice of beaming of applications is, there is reason to believe that it is not uncommon. For example, commenting in a Wired interview on his Palm quickwriting program presented at the 1998 ACM User Interface Software and Technology Symposium, Ken Perlin remarked “By the time I gave my talk, she had beamed it [via the PalmPilot’s infrared connection] to several people in the room. It spread through the room like a virus.”

An analogy can be drawn between virus threats to Palm handhelds (Palm OS Version 3) and to PCs during the 1980s before networking was widespread. Bulletin boards have been replaced by Web downloads, exchanging floppy disks is similar to beaming, and shrink-wrapped software is not unlike using a reliable Web repository or CD distribution. Viruses from that era, such as Brain (1987) and Lehigh (1987) typically spread via bulletin boards and floppy disks. If the beaming of Palm applications was to become as prevalent as was PC application sharing via floppy disks during the 1980s, then one could conjecture that the Palm would be similarly vulnerable to virus infection.

Poorly implemented applications may facilitate the spread of viruses between handhelds. For example, a popular third-party document reader allows the beaming of document databases as application databases between handhelds. However, the recipient of a beamed database has no way of knowing, in advance, whether the beamed database is a document database or is an application database that possibly contains a virus. We suspect this vulnerability was the result of a coding shortcut, using an existing Palm OS API call that beams applications, rather than developing specialized code for beaming document databases.

The Palm VII, introduced in May 1999, uses a two-way radio service and greatly increases the potential for connectivity. At present the service provides instant messaging and indirect access to the Internet. Internet access is achieved via a Web-clipping proxy service that “clips” specific Web pages and delivers the low-bandwidth result to their associated Palm Query Applications (PQAs) on the handheld. While it should be technically possible for a PQA to use the Web-clipping service to deliver a PRC file and subsequently install it, we believe such an application, if developed, would not be widely used for downloading arbitrary applications. Web clipping is intended for low-bandwidth Internet queries, taking under 10 seconds to deliver up to 500B as a result of a typical request from a PQA [2]. This would make downloading even the smallest Palm applications (1–5KB) unattractive.

But what of the future? Using synchronization to install applications can inhibit the spread of Palm viruses, but this resistance diminishes with the development of applications and hardware facilitating or encouraging direct sharing of programs between handhelds. This resistance may be further diminished by the development of support for executable content, for example, document macros. While we are unaware of any Plam application that supports macros, the effectiveness of PC macro viruses such as Melissa leads us to call for any developments in this direction to properly address the security concerns.

Back to Top

Back to Top

Back to Top

Back to Top

UF2-1 Figure. A simple Palm virus.

    1. Cohen, F. A Short Course on Computer Viruses. John Wiley, 2d Ed.,1994.

    2. Palm Computing. Palm VII Connected Organizer. Whitepaper 1999.

    3. Trend Virus Encyclopedia; www. antivirus.com.

    4. Wildlist Organization International; www. wildlist.org

Join the Discussion (0)

Become a Member or Sign In to Post a Comment

The Latest from CACM

Shape the Future of Computing

ACM encourages its members to take a direct hand in shaping the future of the association. There are more ways than ever to get involved.

Get Involved

Communications of the ACM (CACM) is now a fully Open Access publication.

By opening CACM to the world, we hope to increase engagement among the broader computer science community and encourage non-members to discover the rich resources ACM has to offer.

Learn More