North­eastern Uni­ver­sity researchers pre­dicted last year that major Smart­phone viruses will become a real threat to devices such as Black­berrys and iPhones once a par­tic­ular oper­ating system approaches a 10 per­cent market share. Based on news reports indi­cating that more than one mil­lion Smart­phones in China have been hit with such a virus, it appears their pre­dic­tions have been realized.

This was exactly the type of thing that we described in our study,” said László Barabási, Dis­tin­guished Pro­fessor of Physics and director of the Center for Com­plex Net­work Research (CCNR) at North­eastern University.

Barabási, a pio­neer in net­work sci­ence, coau­thored a paper with other North­eastern researchers enti­tled, “Under­standing the Spreading Pat­terns of Mobile Phone Viruses,” pub­lished in Sci­ence mag­a­zine in April 2009. The team wrote that Smart­phones present fer­tile ground for viruses since they can share pro­grams and data with each other, unlike tra­di­tional cell phones that lack a stan­dard­ized oper­ating system. The researchers pre­dicted that a virus would run on the leading oper­ating system on the market, and warned that the virus threat would rise as those devices’ pop­u­larity grew worldwide.

In the study, the team mod­eled cell phone users’ mobility to ana­lyze the poten­tial spread of both Blue­tooth and mul­ti­media mes­saging ser­vice (MMS) viruses. They found Blue­tooth viruses would spread slowly because users must be in close phys­ical prox­imity, while MMS viruses could infect users much faster since they share net­works, such as con­tact lists and e-​​mail. Thus, they pre­dicted a MMS virus was far more likely.

Now, the “zombie virus” has infil­trated more than one mil­lion Smart­phones in China since Sep­tember, according to news reports. Through this virus, hackers obtain users’ Smart­phone infor­ma­tion and con­tact lists, and the con­tacts have report­edly received text mes­sages that also con­tain viruses and have col­lec­tively caused up to $300,000 per day in false tex­ting charges.

Barabási said the virus is run­ning on Sym­bian, the world’s most-​​used the oper­ating system on mobile devices. He said pre­lim­i­nary data indi­cates Sym­bian has reached 6.4 per­cent of the market—sufficiently close to the figure pre­dicted by his research team to trigger a viral process. The team included CCNR col­leagues Pu Wang and César Hidalgo, at that time both PhD candidates,and post­doc­toral researcher Marta González.

Barabási said that while anti-​​virus soft­ware for mobile phones is avail­able, many users are unaware of its exis­tence, while providers often take reac­tive mea­sures to viruses rather than actively thinking of pre­ven­ta­tive steps.

I do think the world is truly unpre­pared for this,” Barabási said.

But, he added, “Many of these advances happen through crisis.”

CCNR is con­sid­ered the leading university-​​based center for net­work sci­ence research in the world. The center focuses on how net­works emerge, what they look like, and how they evolve, and how net­works affect our under­standing of com­plex systems.