Researchers bypass Apple security gauntlet

Dec 05, 2013

Hacking programs disguised as games are helping Apple to improve the security of devices operating on its iOS platform.

Software companies work hard to protect their customers' personal data from malicious applications, or 'apps', but even the most secure devices can be vulnerable. Skilled and independent computer scientists, such as Jin Han and co-workers at the A*STAR Institute for Infocomm Research and the Singapore Management University, can greatly assist companies by spotting security weaknesses before they are exploited.

Han and co-workers recently published a detailed comparison of the two very different security models used by the big players in mobile software, Apple's iOS platform and Google's Android. Now, the researchers have developed subtle attack apps that test the secretive model of mobile security used in iOS.

Apple's preferred security model is 'closed source'. This means that the company does not publish details of how apps are vetted before becoming available in their iTunes Store. Apple also refrains from publishing the internal code that decides whether apps can control phone functions such as contacts, calendars or cameras.

Despite this secrecy, the researchers were able to develop generic attack codes that enabled third-party control of iOS devices. They demonstrated seven different attack apps, disguised as games, that performed malicious actions including cracking the device's PIN, taking photographs and sending text messages without the user's awareness.

"We utilized private function calls to gain privileges that are not intended for third-party developers," explains Han. "Furthermore, we found a way to bypass Apple's vetting process so that our apps, embedded with proof-of-concept attacks, could be published on iTunes."

The attack apps worked on both iOS 5 and 6, although the team was careful to include secret triggers to protect any public users. The researchers have shared all of their findings with Apple and published recommendations on how the company should fix these vulnerabilities.

"Apple responded very quickly after we informed them about our findings, and before the release of the new iOS 7 platform," says Han. He expects that the company adopted countermeasures similar to those described in his team's paper, but cannot confirm this since iOS is closed source.

The ongoing debate over open- versus closed-source development will continue to rage among information technology specialists. Nevertheless, Han notes that their attack-app codes could, with some modifications, probably also bypass the permissions-based security model used in Android. "My personal opinion is that closed-source development is not good for . A cryptosystem should be secure even if everything about the system, except the key, is public knowledge. I think the same principle applies to operating systems."

Explore further: Some British Airways frequent flier accounts miles breached

More information: Han, J., Yan, Q., Gao, D., Zhou, J. & Deng, R. "Comparing mobile privacy protection through cross-platform applications." 20th Annual Network & Distributed System Security Symposium, 26 February 2013.

Han, J., Kywe, S. M., Yan, Q., Bao, F. & Deng, R. et al. "Launching generic attacks on iOS with approved third-party applications." Applied Cryptography and Network Security, Lecture Notes in Computer Science 7954, 272–289 (2013).

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Mobile security: Android versus Apple

Oct 09, 2013

Smartphones are big business, prompting fierce competition between providers. One major concern for consumers is whether a smartphone will keep their private data safe from malicious programs. To date, however, ...

Enhancing security in Apple devices

Nov 06, 2013

A*STAR's Institute for Infocomm Research has helped to fix three security weaknesses in Apple's iOS mobile operating system.

Georgia Tech uncovers iOS security weaknesses

Jul 31, 2013

Researchers from the Georgia Tech Information Security Center (GTISC) have discovered two security weaknesses that permit installation of malware onto Apple mobile devices using seemingly innocuous applications ...

Stanford launches new free course on iPhone/iPad apps

Nov 05, 2013

( —Stanford's incredibly popular online course, Developing Apps for iPhone and iPad, is now available for iOS 7 on iTunes U. As always, this free course is available to anyone, anywhere.

Recommended for you

Does your password pass muster?

Mar 25, 2015

"Create a password" is a prompt familiar to anyone who's tried to buy a book from Amazon or register for a Google account. Equally familiar is that red / yellow / green bar that rates the new password's strength. ...

Beijing behind Internet security violation: group

Mar 25, 2015

China's cyberspace administration is "complicit" in attacks on major Internet companies including Google, an anti-censorship group said Wednesday, calling on firms worldwide to strengthen their defences.

House unveils cyber bill and signals bipartisan compromise

Mar 24, 2015

House intelligence committee leaders unveiled a bipartisan cybersecurity bill Tuesday amid signs of broad agreement on long-sought legislation that would allow private companies to share with the government details of how ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.