London, February 27 : Software worms may spread between Bluetooth-enabled mobiles in the same manner as flu viruses in humans, say researchers.
Christopher Rhodes, an expert on infectious diseases at Imperial College London, joined Maziar Nekovee, a researcher at BT's research lab in Suffolk, UK, to create a mathematical model to discern how a wireless computer worm could spread between portable devices.
The researchers involved a crowd of people carrying Bluetooth-enabled smartphones in their study. The participants had to move in a straight line, and at a fixed speed.
According to them, a phone infected with a virus had a fixed probability of infecting other devices while they were within range.
Rhodes said that the study indicated that the spread of a wireless worm could be represented using a common tool for representing virus outbreaks, called a standard mass-action mixing model.
"The transmission model is actually very similar to something like influenza," New Scientist magazine quoted Rhodes as saying.
Experts are worried that a wireless worm might spread most efficiently in a busy setting, and also hop between geographically distant locations like aboard a plane.
"A Bluetooth worm's ability to spread is rooted in person-to-person contact," said Eric Chien, a chief researcher at Symantec Security Response in the US. So a mass-action mixing model provides a good approximation.
"Knowledge that person-to-person contact, or rather device to device contact, represents a major factor in how a Bluetooth worm spreads is definitely important," he added.
Chien further said that one simple mitigation strategy could be to disable Bluetooth communications during an outbreak.
"This reduces the contact occurrences and would be analogous to wearing a surgical mask in areas of potential infection," he said.
Hailing the work as "great and interesting research", Bruce Schneier of security company BT Counterpane said: "What's interesting is that malware depends a lot on the characteristics of the underlying network. The phone network is different (to existing networks) and the spreading characteristics will be different."
He, however, expressed doubts whether the new research would pave the way for any radically new strategies for defending against such threats.
"People subscribe to automatic update, because worms spread faster. Fast spreading is a characteristic of wireless worms, too," he said.