Mobile-Phone Malware Is Rising. Blame Spies.

Spies are increasingly hacking into the smartphones of political opponents and dissidents around the world, security researchers say, giving them access to data far more sensitive than what most people keep on personal computers.

Mobile-security firm Lookout Inc. counted 22 phone-hacking efforts in the first five months of this year that appeared to be government-backed. Most targeted political opponents in developing nations, Lookout said. The company’s researchers identified just two such efforts in all of 2015.

The increase is being driven by the proliferation both of low-cost smartphones and of companies selling spyware and hacking tools to access them, said Claudio Guarnieri, a security researcher with the human-rights group Amnesty International. Most hacking efforts now target mobile phones, Mr. Guarnieri said, while in 2015 the majority still involved personal computers.

“It is one thing to compromise someone’s computer,” said Mike Murray, Lookout’s vice president of security research. “It’s another thing to have a listening device that they carry around with them 24 hours a day,”

The government-sponsored surveillance of mobile phones comes as more hackers of all stripes gain access to the devices. Turned against their owners, the phones can become powerful espionage tools, researchers say. Spies can monitor a user’s contacts, communications, travel history and even their financial transactions.

The trend pits outfits that craft spyware tools against the cybersecurity companies and device makers trying to defend user privacy. Apple Inc.and Alphabet Inc.’s Google both say they are committed to keeping their devices secure. But researchers say malicious software often exploits known bugs on phones that haven’t been patched and hackers also sneak malicious software into app stores. Antivirus vendors such as McAfee Inc. and Symantec Inc. see mobile-device protection as an important market for future sales.

The tools and expertise needed to create malicious software for mobile phones have become more common and less expensive, said Raj Samani, McAfee’s chief scientist. As a result, close to 11% of mobile-phones world-wide had some sort of infection in the fourth quarter of 2017, McAfee said, up from about 7.5% during the same period of 2015.


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