Global Economics

NetQin Nails Security for Mobile Phones


Spam, viruses, malware, phishing: They're not just for PCs anymore. China's NetQin helps stamp out security threats on handsets, with help from its users

Today's smartphones are actually tiny computers, complete with operating systems, storage, and—in many cases—direct access to internal company networks. That makes them an increasingly attractive target for hackers and scam artists. London software company Symbian, which makes the most widely used smartphone operating system, already has tallied more than 30 mobile-phone viruses that can inflict a range of damage, including stealing data, infecting files, replacing applications, disrupting system functions, and installing malware. Phishing, or criminally fraudulent attempts to acquire such sensitive information as identities, passwords, or credit-card information, is an even bigger problem on mobile devices. Beijing's NetQin Technology is helping users around the world fight back. The company delivers mobile security tools through an Internet-based service, including anti-virus, anti-spam, privacy protection, data backup and restoration, and online virus scan, to 55 million users in more than 200 countries. NetQin already controls 68 percent of the mobile security market in China, because it's the exclusive provider of anti-spamming services to China Mobile (CHL), the world's largest mobile operator. But 30 percent of its user base is international. Crucial in Daily Life

NetQin is one of 31 companies named by the Geneva-based World Economic Forum on Sept. 1 as Technology Pioneers offering new technologies or business models that could have a positive impact on peoples' lives. "As mobile phones become the information center that connects people with the world, mobile security is becoming a fundamental, key service for people's daily lives," says Lin Yu, Netqin's chief executive. NetQin employs a number of esoteric techniques to work its magic. To filter out spam, for instance, it uses semantic analysis to read incoming messages and weed out the junk mail. The service also learns on the fly, thanks to examples of spam submitted by other customers. Indeed, every time NetQin's users access its services, they "contribute" more knowledge about viruses, spam, and phishing to the platform, which is in turn passed on to the rest of the NetQin community. That means the more users NetQin brings in, the more valuable its service becomes. Users can sign up via NetQin's website, through operators such as China Mobile, or via mobile phones preloaded with NetQin software from manufacturers like Nokia (NOK), Sony Ericsson, Huawei, Samsung, and Lenovo. A Leg up in Patents

One of NetQin's key advantages is that its virus scanning engine was designed from the beginning to operate inside mobile phones, so it uses little power and doesn't interfere with normal phone functions when running. NetQin's heavy investment in research and development has resulted in 23 patented and patent-pending technologies, giving the company an edge over upstart rivals. Still, NetQin is bound to face heavy competition in the future. Mobile phone security today represents less than 5 percent of the revenues for traditional security and anti-virus companies, such as Kaspersky Lab, Symantec (SYMC), and McAfee (MFE). But that's about to change, says Eric Domage, program manager for security solutions, Western Europe, at technology researcher IDC. Domage predicts the market will boom within the next few months, as advances in mobile-phone technology allow a host of players to put security software agents onto mobile devices for the first time. Intel's (INTC) recent $7.68 billion acquisition of McAfee—adding security software to its chipmaking arsenal—was made in part to ensure its place in mobile security, Domage says. NetQin may have to rely as never before on its loyal users to combat the marketing muscle of encroaching giants.

Jennifer L. Schenker is the founder and editor of Informilo, a European technology Web site and conference producer, and a former BusinessWeek correspondent in Paris.

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