Eset Readies Mobile Security Software for Some Smartphone Operating Systems

I must begin with a confession: It’s been awhile since I sat down with Eset CEO Anton Zajac to get an update on the privately held IT security and anti-virus software developer based in Bratislava, Slovakia, and San Diego.

While the company’s security software products are well-known in Europe, Eset is not as well-recognized in the United States; I described Eset last year as “the fastest growing anti-virus software developer you’ve never heard of.” Zajac said that while 2009 proved to be more difficult than expected, Eset still managed to grow its sales about 15 percent over 2008. “The good news is that this year it is basically double 2009,” Zajac said, meaning sales growth in North America has been running at better than 30 percent—and higher in Latin America and Asia and Pacific markets. The security software developer has more than 500 employees worldwide, including roughly 180 in San Diego.

What prompted me to return to my notes, though, was the $7.7 billion acquisition of McAfee that Intel announced two weeks ago. By most accounts, Intel’s McAfee deal is all about bringing computer security into the future of Internet-connected smartphones and other mobile devices. (It’s a significant development in the wireless technology industry, where San Diego-based Qualcomm plays a prominent role—especially after Intel followed its McAfee deal with its $1.4 billion purchase of Infineon Technologies’ wireless chip business earlier this week. And lest we forget, Intel paid $884 million last year to buy Wind River Systems, the Alameda, CA-based embedded-software developer.)

During our conversation, Zajac told me Eset also has been moving to develop security software for smartphones, saying, “Increasingly, as the use of smartphones becomes more prevalent, the [malicious] attacks will target mobile devices.”

Eset has been working to update its existing mobile security software for Microsoft Windows Phone 7. The company also is on the verge of introducing new security software for the Symbian OS, which had almost 47 percent of the smartphone operating system market globally in 2009, according to Gartner.

“We have a huge market share in Spain, and Symbian is the domininant mobile platform there,” Zajac explained.

“When you have a smartphone, regardless of the platform, your entire life is in the palm of your hand,” Zajac said. A knowledgeable hacker can track your movements. Malware surreptitiously installed on your smartphone can actually transmit your calls so that a third-party listener can eavesdrop on your conversations. At a security conference in May, Zajac says there was a proof-of-concept demonstration of a hacker rootkit installation on a smartphone, and the rootkit could be triggered by a text message so that the activation of the program would be invisible to the user.

In thinking about it, though, I realized I’m always reading about Internet-based attacks on financial computer networks, online shopping networks, and other commercial IT networks—but when do we hear about hacker attacks on mobile phones? Or enslaved smartphones taking part in botnet attacks?

Such attacks are indeed rare—but only for the time being, Zajac said, “This is all about making money for cyber criminals and organized crime. If the platform is prevalent and has sufficient computing power, it will be attacked for purposes of cyber crime.”

Cyber criminals have not focused their resources on mobile technologies just yet, Zajac said, in part because there are many different mobile operating systems—Symbian, Research in Motion, iPhone OS, Windows Phone, Linux, and Android. Smartphones and other mobile devices also don’t store much data of value to cyber criminals. That’s because smartphones typically don’t store databases, and instead accessing information from databases in the cloud, according to Zajac. Still, smartphones are increasingly carrying around more data, and more and more apps have built-in databases. So it won’t be too long before you can put a laptop’s worth of information onto a phone.

But he predicts mobile systems will come under attack as the wireless industry develops technology that enables people to make retail purchases and conduct other business transactions using smartcards or other near-field communications technology embedded in their smartphones.

“The information flowing in and out of your smartphone can be compromised,” Zajac says, “so you’re at very high risk.”

In short, mobile platforms are not a target yet. But they will be, and that’s the challenge Eset and the wireless industry is moving to address.

Bruce V. Bigelow was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

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