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Source: Wall Street Journal

Posted on December 28, 2010

As consumers and companies embrace smartphones to do more of their computing, the wireless industry is taking its first steps to beef up security on mobile devices.

Carriers are deploying new services and cutting deals with start-ups to help protect people from malicious attacks and misuse of their personal data stored on a smartphone. Meanwhile, handset makers and chip firms are taking steps to fortify their hardware as the number of attacks on mobile devices grows larger and more sophisticated.

"Everyone is realizing that this is an uncontrolled environment," said Edward G. Amoroso, chief security officer of AT&T Inc. "We don't want to have the same problems that we had with PCs.".

Security researchers and technology executives say their moves to improve security mark the start of an effort that will take years to play out because the wireless industry until recently was more focused on signing up customers than hardening mobile devices against attacks.

As consumers and companies start doing business on their devices, the industry also believes it is critical to be proactive before a major attack so that the public feels comfortable conducting commerce on their mobile devices.

"Right now it is a daily fight with security issues," said AT&T Chief Executive Randall Stephenson in an interview in June. "If we as an industry don't really get ahead of this and get a good controlled environment around this mobile broadband world it will limit growth potential".

AT&T has hired 13 Ph.Ds in the last six months to open a new lab in New York City focused on mobile security. The researchers are working on technology that detects and blocks worms, viruses and other malicious software from reaching mobile devices.

Carriers are also working with start-ups to fill in some gaps. In October, Verizon Wireless signed a marketing and distribution partnership with Lookout Inc., a mobile-security provider based in San Francisco. Lookout makes a free application for Google Inc.'s Android software as well as BlackBerrys and Windows-based devices.

The application allows consumers to locate lost or stolen phones, back up their data, and remotely erase data so the information doesn't fall into the wrong hands. The company also blocks malicious apps through a global computer network that detects and analyzes mobile threats as they are released.

"We can respond in a number of hours" to a new threat, said Lookout Chief Executive John Hering.

Lookout claims its app has more than four million registered users. In November, it started selling a premium version that costs $3 a month.

The company is expected to announce this week that it has raised $19.5 million in venture capital from Index Ventures, Accel Partners and Khosla Ventures. The money will help the company expand overseas and build out its detection network.

Jennifer Byrne, executive director of business development for Verizon Wireless, said the company is promoting apps such as Lookout that help customers to protect their phones. "It is a real obvious problem we are solving," she said.

In November, AT&T struck a reseller deal with MobileIron Inc. to distribute the start-up's software to help companies to manage security of mobile devices and app stores. AT&T also recently signed a deal with McAfee Inc. to resell its device management software.

"The next wave of security questions is about the explosion of enterprise apps," said Bob Tinker, chief executive of MobileIron.

Hardware makers are also taking new steps. Research In Motion Ltd., whose BlackBerry smartphones are known for their business security, is preparing to roll out a free product called BlackBerry Protect that will let consumers to back up their data such as contacts and text messages, and remotely locate or lock the device or wipe the data.

The company is also working to make its security software for corporate technology managers more easy to use. The tools let managers control the apps that employees are allowed to download, and the types of data the apps can access on a device.

Security is also migrating down to the silicon on a computer chip. Adrian Turner, chief executive of Mocana Corp, said his start-up is selling its security technology to chipmakers such as Intel Corp. Mocana's technology helps companies to encrypt wireless data and detect and block malicious software from infecting mobile devices.

Down the road, Mr. Turner said Mocana and other companies are working on technology that would allow companies to control data based on the location of an employee through a new technique called "geo-fencing."

That way a company could prevent an employee from, say, accessing data over a wireless network if they leave a certain area. "No one is doing that now," he said.

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