The rise of mobile malware has been an issue affecting mainly smartphones in Europe and Asia, but that’s likely to change next year according to Lookout Mobile Security. In its 2012 Mobile Threat Prediction, Lookout suggests that deceptive links, botnets, and more security exploits will make a malware a critical issue for all mobile users.

Based on data culled from its threat network, which includes software on more than 15 million, Lookout predicts that security attacks will manifest in three key areas:

  • Mobile Pickpocketing, which is where apps trick users into signing up for costly SMS services.
  • Vulnerable Phones, which will expose users to risk because of challenges to updating devices and patching security holes.
  • Botnets, which haven’t been used yet, but could evolve to use mobile devices in a way that distributes spam, steals personal information, and installs itself on other devices.

Of course, that last threat is precisely the kind of thing that Google team member Chris DiBona said was not possible when he called mobile anti-virus app makers “scammers and charlatans.” So when Lookout’s Kevin Holiday said the word “botnet” in a briefing I had about the report yesterday, I immediately asked for clarity.

“We haven’t seen mobile botnets actively right now, but we’ve seen some families of malware that have bonnet capabilities,” said Holiday. “As we look at mobile threats and see that they are coming more sophisticated and evolving, one potential occurrence for turning on the light switch if you will.”

In other words, Lookout’s not saying it will happen, just that it believes that it might occur given how smart malware creators get. Lookout believes that because “the bad guys follow the money,” and consumers are spending money on mobile devices in increasingly large numbers. The appeal for attacking phones will grow because as the costs of distribution go down, the potential profits go up, encouraging more attacks.

So what’s being done to prevent these predictions from coming true? Well, for starters, Lookout echoes the same tips that we’ve been giving for years. Don’t download for shady, untrusted sources, and be mindful of what an app promises.

“Third party application stores present a higher risk to the general consumer than the official Android Market. That’s not to say that the Android Market is completely free from malware – in fact the RU Fraud malware we discovered this weekend was there before Google pulled it – but in general, users should be careful when downloading from those third party app stores…If consumers are looking to download premium games for free, that’s something consumers should take with a grain of salt.” – Kevin Holiday

The likelihood of a malware attack on your phone is likely to increase through these deceptive methods. Lookout predicts that phishing websites, online and in-app advertising, and automatic repackaging once an app is installed will be the way that malware writers attempt to distribute their software. Most users have been able to avoid infection, but more sophisticated tactics may change that in 2012.

And if this all sounds like a bunch of fear-mongering phooey like Chris DiBona suggested, Kevin Holiday had this to say:

I think he has a great point of view and i respect it 100%. his point of view around open source is a good one and we identify with the fact that open source provides opportunity for security in general. While there may be patches available on the official AOSP code base, those patches aren’t making it down to handsets in general, providing a vulnerability for users. What we’re trying to do with lookout is provide trust and security so security is at the back of people’s mind instead of the front.

Read the full Mobile Malware Prediction here.

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