Apple iPhone security, privacy claims exaggerated, researcher says

Black Hat conference presenter criticised Apple iPhone application security

Apple's claims about iPhone privacy and security are exaggerated, according to software engineer and security expert Nicolas Seriot, who gave a presentation yesterday about the iPhone at the Black Hat Conference in DC.

Apple's sandboxing technology restricts iPhone applications to operating system resources with a list of deny/allow rules at the kernel level, but these and other permissions are "way too loose," and "Apple should not claim that an application cannot access data from another application," said Seriot, who works as an iPhone programming trainer at a company called Sen:te.

Seriot noted a number of iPhone apps, including one called Aurora Feint and another called mogoRoad, that made it into Apple's App Store before being de-listed for privacy violations involving the harvesting of iPhone users' contacts, e-mails and phone numbers. Apple reviewers can be fooled, and the likelihood of this continuing to occur appears high, especially as the iPhone, now at about 34 million devices in the market, becomes an increasingly appealing target for hackers, he said.

Seriot is examining these kinds of issues for some Swiss financial institutions that want to know about iPhone security and privacy. About 8% of iPhones today are believed to be "jailbroken," meaning the user has effectively disabled controls in order to run whatever software he wants, not just what's available in the App Store, and malware aimed at them is starting to grow.

Separate from the jailbroken issue, Seriot has found in his own investigation that sensitive personal data can be picked up just building an application using the known iPhone APIs.

To illustrate why he's skeptical about iPhone privacy and security, Seriot designed what he calls his SpyPhone app (it's not available through official Apple iPhone channels, but intended to illustrate his point). With SpyPhone, it's possible to peer into e-mail addresses, the user account and server information -- though not the password, he said. Recent Safari and YouTube searches are also laid out.

If an iPhone accesses Wi-Fi, information is revealed about what Wi-Fi networks are used, as well "my phone number and the last person dialed," said Seriot, who gave a brief demo of the SpyPhone application he wrote. "What else? Location. When an iPhone app asks for the position of the user, it comes from the cache of the maps application."

Seriot said he thinks Apple should build something akin to an application firewall for the iPhone so that the user can be informed when certain actions start to occur so he can prevent them from happening, such as an app trying to edit the address book.

However, Seriot also said he wasn't in favor of changing the underlying security mechanism so that antimalware software makers might be able to scan for malware or perform other security functions. Several security vendors would like Apple to change the iPhone so their software could be used on it, but Seriot expressed skepticism that these vendors simply want another market for their wares.

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