Over the past few years, researchers have warned that viruses and other security threats could soon start appearing on mobile devices. The buzz at two major hacker conferences suggests that such threats could finally be about to arrive in force. The Black Hat and Defcon conferences, which bring together computer security researchers, consultants, and independent hackers, both took place last week in Las Vegas.
This weekend, a hacker known as “comex” grabbed headlines by launching a website called “JailbreakMe” for breaking the security architecture built into the iPhone. Simply visiting www.jailbreakme.com on an iPhone and clicking a button will disable these security features.
JailbreakMe doesn’t appear to be designed to harm an iPhone or the data stored on it. Some users “jailbreak” their iPhones in order to install applications that haven’t been approved by Apple, or to run the phones on a network other than Apple’s partner, AT&T. But the technique used by JailbreakMe could just as easily be used by malicious hackers or virus writers. It was also just one of many mobile exploits discussed at both Black Hat and Defcon.
According to Dave Marcus, security research and communications manager for the security company McAfee, JailbreakMe relies on two vulnerabilities: one involves the way an iPhone processes PDF files, and another is buried deep in the phone’s operating system. Together, these vulnerabilities allow “remote code execution”–making it possible to run programs on the device without going through Apple’s App Store or getting permission from the user.
In a post on McAfee’s site, Marcus noted that vulnerabilities that work as reliably as those used by JailbreakMe tend to be picked up by other attackers and used for malware and other nefarious purposes. “I hope I am not the only one who is bothered by this because it begs the question, ‘What else can this be used for?’ ” Marcus wrote.
JailbreakMe “shows exactly the threat scenario that mobile phones can face,” adds Vincenzo Iozzo, an engineer for Zynamics. Iozzo was part of a team that won an iPhone hacking contest earlier this year at the CanSecWest security conference in Vancouver. He explains that smart phones are often protected by a technology known as “sandboxing,” which is supposed to isolate some functionality in the phone from installed software, thus preventing attackers from gaining total control. JailbreakMe bypasses sandboxing, demonstrating a serious threat to the device.
Iozzo presented his own research, conducted with colleagues Tim Kornau and Ralf-Philipp Weinmann, at Black Hat. He showed how attackers can run code even on operating systems designed not to allow unfamiliar code to execute by using a type of code that works at a low level within the operating system. Iozzo says his research could significantly cut down the time it takes to develop an effective attack against a smart phone.