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New devices, new threats

Is more connectivity leading to new security problems?

My Xbox 360 arrived yesterday. It only took four months to get here - I was worried that the 360 in the name was how long it took to arrive. However, I will forgive anything when I get a new gadget to play with.

I connected it up to my wireless network so I could stream music and pictures from my PC to my television. And then there are Perfect Dark Zero and Project Gotham Racing - playing games is much more fun than writing.

It's a computer, stupid

It got me thinking. The Xbox 360 is, in fact, a very powerful computer with a broadband internet connection. Inevitably, I asked myself: is it a security risk? Long-time readers will be familiar with my slightly paranoid turn of mind.

Quote�A Trojan is a kind of malware that users install themselves.�End Quote

I don't know of any threats to the Xbox 360. However, games consoles are not immune. There is already a Trojan that renders Sony's Playstation Portable handheld games machine unusable. Luckily only a handful of users were affected.

Bad programs - malware to use the technical term - come in different guises. I tend to use the word virus to describe the lot but a bit of etymology is necessary here to explain why a Trojan is generally a lesser risk than a regular virus.

A Trojan is a kind of malware that users install themselves - which the gullible do in happy anticipation believing it is something like Anna Kournikova's phone number - whereas viruses and worms spread from one computer to another without human intervention.

My phone is a computer too

The fear is that someone will find a way to write self-replicating viruses for devices other than PCs. If my videogame could be damaged by a nasty piece of software, what else is at risk?

The obvious candidate is my phone. I have an Orange C600 Smartphone. I was picking up my email on it this morning when I realise that it is a better computer in every way than the PC I had on my desk ten years ago: over 500mb of memory, a more colourful screen, a faster processor and a speedier internet connection.

There have been several reports of 'proof of concept' malware that attack Smartphones. The most recent is reported to send premium rate text messages from your handset. Profit is more attractive to criminals than vandalism and this is one way to make money from a phone virus. The good news is that, like the Playstation malware, it is a Trojan.

Help, my fridge has got a virus!

Quote�My car's engine management system is a computer too. I know this because it crashed once.�End Quote

Computers are getting everywhere; before long your toothbrush will have an internet connection and your kettle will be downloading MP3s. My car's engine management system is a computer too. I know this because it crashed once (the engine management system, not the car) and wouldn't let me drive faster than 15 mph. An engineer had to reboot it and install a patch with his laptop. He didn't even open the bonnet.

Luckily my car doesn't have an internet connection. If it did, I wouldn't be worried about the security risks as much as the conversations in the pub: "Never mind the top speed, what's your bandwidth?"

Even my plane is stuffed full of computers. The big screens in the cockpit - the primary flight display and multifunction display - are what I use to control and navigate the plane. They both run a version of Windows.

What about the LG Internet Fridge Freezer? This is a case of mad scientist meets domestic appliance. It has a touch screen display, an internet connection and a built-in video camera. The website coyly adds "it's great for storing food too."

It's 1984 all over again

I don't think we need to panic yet about viruses attacking videogames, phones, cars, planes or fridges. However, internet-connected devices are multiplying, and if there's money in it, criminals will attack it. Orwell's vision of a two-way television in every room may come true but they won't be connected to Big Brother - they'll be hijacked by Mr. Big.

What next?

Find out more about mobile devices - and see which is right for you with our quiz.

Matthew writes a new column every fortnight. Subscribe and get each edition direct to your inbox.

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