Hello,

We noticed you're browsing in private or incognito mode.

To continue reading this article, please exit incognito mode or log in.

Not an Insider? Subscribe now for unlimited access to online articles.

Intelligent Machines

Got an iPhone? There's an App for Hacking That

New attacks highlight the growing threat to smart phones.

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.

Open sesame: JailbreakMe is a website that disables an iPhone’s security protections. Experts warn that the technique could be adapted and used to steal information from a device.

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.

This story is part of our January/February 2010 Issue
See the rest of the issue
Subscribe

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.

The iPhone wasn’t the only phone targeted by security researchers. Nicholas Percoco and Christian Papathanasiou, both researchers at TrustWave’s SpiderLabs, presented a rootkit for the Android HTC Desire at Defcon. The researchers didn’t focus on how to get the rootkit onto a user’s device–software that gives an attacker complete control over a system. Instead, they explored what could happen once an attacker was able to get a rootkit installed.

Percoco says the rootkit gives an attacker very low-level access–making it possible to, for example, cause the device to make “phantom phone calls”–connections that a user wouldn’t notice. This ability might be attractive to attackers looking to make money by collecting fees from a 900 number, Percoco notes.

Percoco argues that it is dangerous that software makers hide much of a smart phone’s complexities from users. This makes for good usability, he says, but it also makes it hard for a user to know when something has gone wrong. “Most users don’t question the integrity of their phones,” he says.

Karsten Nohl, a prominent German security researcher, says the iPhone, which automatically limits the code that can run on the device, is more secure–by default–than the average PC. But he adds that hackers can also attack mobile infrastructure. He says that this infrastructure is less secure than corresponding Internet infrastructure because it hasn’t been researched as thoroughly.

Nohl presented research at Black Hat showing how to break the encryption used by GSM–the network standard for most phones around the world (in the United States, several major carriers use a competing network technology known as CDMA). Nohl released software that allows a user equipped with a software radio (hardware that costs about $1,500) to analyze and break the encryption used to protect GSM communications. Research into GSM has been slowed by the inaccessibility of the networks, Nohl says, but these days anyone can apply knowledge of Internet and PC hacking to GSM.

Other network attacks revealed at Defcon could allow someone to track people’s locations through a mobile network’s databases. Nohl says he hopes that these and other new attacks will make network operators address vulnerabilities with patches and stronger encryption.

The AI revolution is here. Will you lead or follow?
Join us at EmTech Digital 2019.

Register now
More from Intelligent Machines

Artificial intelligence and robots are transforming how we work and live.

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe and become an Insider.
  • Insider Plus {! insider.prices.plus !}* Best Value

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Everything included in Insider Basic, plus the digital magazine, extensive archive, ad-free web experience, and discounts to partner offerings and MIT Technology Review events.

    See details+

    Print + Digital Magazine (6 bi-monthly issues)

    Unlimited online access including all articles, multimedia, and more

    The Download newsletter with top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox

    Technology Review PDF magazine archive, including articles, images, and covers dating back to 1899

    10% Discount to MIT Technology Review events and MIT Press

    Ad-free website experience

  • Insider Basic {! insider.prices.basic !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Six issues of our award winning print magazine, unlimited online access plus The Download with the top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox.

    See details+

    Print Magazine (6 bi-monthly issues)

    Unlimited online access including all articles, multimedia, and more

    The Download newsletter with top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox

  • Insider Online Only {! insider.prices.online !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Unlimited online access including articles and video, plus The Download with the top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox.

    See details+

    Unlimited online access including all articles, multimedia, and more

    The Download newsletter with top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox

/3
You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. This is your last free article this month. for unlimited online access. You've read all your free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for more, or for unlimited online access. for two more free articles, or for unlimited online access.