iPhone users now fear security patches, say analysts

Apple's last security update crippled unlocked phones

Apple's decision last week to bundle an iPhone-crippling firmware upgrade with 10 security patches for the device was a mistake, analysts said this week.

Thursday's iPhone Update 1.1.1 included not only new features and functionality -- including access to the iTunes Wi-Fi Music Store -- but plugged holes in the device's built-in Safari browser, e-mail software and Bluetooth implementation.

But it was the news that the update "bricked," or disabled, iPhones modified to work with networks other than AT&T that caught the attention of security analysts like Andrew Storms, director of security operations at nCircle Network Security.

"With the iPhone update, Apple is now producing a fear of taking their patches," Storms said. "If they release a functionality update and security fixes at the same time in the future, some users will think twice about applying it. They'll ask themselves 'What will it break this time?' and 'Will it backfire on me?'

"Apple would rather have [iPhone] users secure, and users would rather be secure," Storms continued. "But when the update appeared, it was almost certain that some huge percentage of devices for which the patches were intended would be broken. That, I think, was more important than the security updates themselves."

Vendors should separate functionality and security updates, added another analyst, Garter's John Pescatore. "There should definitely be a separation between security and functionality," he said. "Users shouldn't be forced to accept new functionality to get security fixes." The problem with mixing the two for enterprise users, he said, is that it forces them to make a choice between spending additional time testing new features before deploying patches, or foregoing the fixes.

Storms seconded that thought. "Enterprises would really prefer to see them separated; The fewer the number of variables the better," he said, referring to troubleshooting possible problems after installing an update.

But vendors don't necessarily follow Storms' and Pescatore's advice. Other companies, Microsoft especially, have blended new features with patches. "In big updates, like Windows XP SP2, Microsoft has mixed security and functionality," said Pescatore. "Even in its monthly [security] updates, it has included things that weren't security patches."

He pointed to the June 2006 upgrade to Windows XP's Windows Genuine Advantage anti-piracy technology, which was updated via the same Windows Update mechanism normally used for patching.

"The reason why companies bundle functionality and security updates is that users hate having to go through the pain of updating," said Pescatore. "Customers like fewer updates." What users dislike, he added, is when a vendor hides security fixes in a larger update. Microsoft's been guilty of that in the past when it's issued fixes but not disclosed the underlying vulnerabilities, perhaps in an attempt to keep the bug count artificially low.

"It's kind of a gamesmanship thing," Pescatore said.

That lack of full disclosure is exactly what got Apple into hot water last week, argued Storms. "In general, bundled updates are a good service for consumers, but the downside is if you don't explicitly tell them what you're updating. That's what happened last week, when everyone was blogging about the iPhone update and whether it 'bricked' the phone. There was no single source of information."

Pescatore didn't see it quite the same way: Users had a pretty clear idea of what would happen to their iPhones the day Apple released the update. Instead, he pointed out another similarity between Apple and Microsoft on the problematic patching policy front.

"Apple was saying that if you hack the iPhone to work with other carriers, when you do download the update, you'll disable the phone. That's not much different than what Microsoft says with WGA [Windows Genuine Advantage] It's Apple saying we want to see if it's modified and then we may cause you some problems. It's definitely similar."

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Gregg Keizer

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