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Viruses for Symbian OS and S60 - the truth

Don't be panicked by media hype about viruses targetting Symbian OS smartphones!

Fact: there are NO viruses for any Symbian OS 9 smartphone - the OS makes access to dangerous 'propagating' functions restricted to proper 'signed' (checked) applications. So you if you own a S60 3rd Edition or UIQ 3-based smartphone you can stop worrying permanently.

Fact: no-one can pass a virus to your Symbian/S60/UIQ smartphone over Bluetooth or MMS without your knowledge. See a plea for sanity, below.

Fact: the Symbian (pre-OS 9, pre-S60 3rd Edition) 'viruses' you read about aren't really in the wild, in the same way that Windows viruses are. Most Symbian malware has been created as 'concept' software and sent straight to an anti-virus vendor (who naturally make a pretty penny out of advising people that they need a-v utility software). Because it's realistically impossible for these apps to spread in most sensible societies, you simply will not come across them in the real world unless you happen to hang around with teenagers with older handsets bent on trying all the latest trojan-infested 'warez' (see below).

Fact: it's impossible for any piece of malicious software to make your smartphone unusable. Even if you allow a piece of 'malware' (i.e. a malicious program) onto your unit, it can't touch the OS and applications in ROM, which means you can always do a hard reset (typing in ‘*#7370#’ works with most Series 60 smartphones, 'Dial'+'*'+'3' while powering on for newer ones, procedures for UIQ and Series 80 units are in the manual) to get back to a working system.

Fact: the biggest hazard in the Symbian world is the 'warez' scene, where unscrupulous people 'crack' commercial software and then put it up for free download. Quite apart from the ethical considerations about putting genuine Symbian authors out of business, these cracked versions are the perfect opportunity for a malicious cracker to insert routines designed to cripple your phone or scramble your data.
You can stay clear of such malware by downloading your Symbian OS third party software from recognised software sites and staying clear of warez. This isn't just me quoting a party line here - this is simply practising safe computing. Only download from trusted sources.

The deal: I'll stand in a room with you and all your infected toys. I'll have a old Series 60 smartphone, a UIQ device and a Series 80 smartphone, all set with Bluetooth to 'Discoverable'. I'll give you as long as you want to try and infect me in any way whatsoever, I'll even accept your SMS and MMS messages and generally communicate. If you succeed in infecting me, I'll hand over an obscene amount of money. No-one fancy the challenge? I thought not.
Symbian OS viruses - just keep your software legal and move on....
Footnote: in 4 years, no company has EVER take me up on the challenge....

You can keep your Symbian smartphone completely free of malware by following a few simple rules:

  1. Use an up to date (S60 3rd Edition, UIQ 3, etc) smartphone
  2. Don't accept unsolicited Bluetooth transmissions from other phones. Or trust applications tacked onto MMS messages ('e.g. Hey, try my new, kewl game!')
  3. To avoid mischevious 'trojans', don't install applications unless they are ones you've asked for or have downloaded from reputable software sites (Handango, AllAboutSymbian, My-Symbian, 3-Lib, etc.)

In most cases, it's quite safe to leave Bluetooth visibility as 'Shown to all'. If you do get bothered by too many unsolicited connection attempts, simply change the setting to 'Hidden'. Although given that the number of 'infected' older Series 60 phones worldwide is truly tiny, you really don't have to worry! You're 100 times more likely to be hit by lightning or to win the lottery...

(C) 2004 - 2008 Steve Litchfield

Related links

Symbian's David Wood (a.k.a. God), over on Silicon.com.

David Wood again, this time on the official Symbian site.