North­eastern researchers say that it’s only a matter of time before com­puter viruses attack smart­phones, like the Black­berry and iPhone, on a mas­sive scale. But their study may also hold the key to blunting the effects of these attacks.

North­eastern Uni­ver­sity physi­cist and net­work sci­en­tist Albert-​​László Barabási and his coau­thors tracked the spreading poten­tial of Blue­tooth and mul­ti­media mes­saging ser­vice (MMS) viruses. Writing in the latest issue of Sci­ence, they pre­dict that these viruses will become a real threat to those smart­phones that gain at least a 10 per­cent market share.

Cur­rently, the user base for these hand­held devices is small and frag­mented, making a major virus out­break impos­sible, said Barabási, Dis­tin­guished Pro­fessor of Physics and director of the Center for Com­plex Net­work Research (CCNR) at North­eastern University.

Once smart­phones become more widely used and one of the oper­ating sys­tems increases its market share to a cer­tain per­centage,” said Barabási, “the users of that system will become sus­cep­tible to mobile viruses within a matter of minutes”—an out­break that could be worse than any­thing caused by tra­di­tional com­puter viruses.

How­ever, under­standing the basic spreading pat­terns of these viruses may enable researchers to devise ways to min­i­mize their impact, said Pu Wang, PhD can­di­date at CCNR and lead author of the study.

The study’s find­ings “could help esti­mate the real­istic risk car­ried by mobile viruses and aid the devel­op­ment of proper mea­sures to avoid the costly impact of major out­breaks,” said Wang.

The authors assessed the spreading dynamics of mobile viruses by mod­eling the loca­tion, the mobility and the com­mu­ni­ca­tion pat­terns of mobile phone users. In a sim­u­lated study, the team used anony­mous billing records from a mobile phone provider and tracked the calling pat­terns and coor­di­nates of the mobile phone tower closest to the user at the time of the call.

Blue­tooth and MMS viruses differ in their spa­tial spreading pat­terns: The former infects pre­dom­i­nantly users in the geo­graph­ical vicinity of the virus’ orig­i­nating point, making its spread rel­a­tively slow, while the latter is capable of spreading to everyone in the address book of the orig­i­nating user within minutes.

Hybrid viruses—capable of simul­ta­ne­ously using both Blue­tooth and MMS con­nec­tions to spread—are also easy to con­tain at the moment because the oper­ating system’s small market share forces them into the slow Blue­tooth spreading mode.

In addi­tion to Wang and Barabási, the study was coau­thored by Marta C. González of North­eastern Uni­ver­sity and César A. Hidalgo of the Center for Inter­na­tional Devel­op­ment at Har­vard University’s Kennedy School of Government.