[ABOVE: Is this humble charger the key to the Apple security empire?]
Making the connection
Apple's devices set the gold standard for mobile device security at present, so the company will likely be interested in the research conducted at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Researchers Billy Lau, Yeongjin Jang, and Chengyu Song at the Black Hat security conference will present the hack next month.
The trio have found that a few modifications to the iPhone charger can make it capable of installing software that's kept hidden from view in similar fashion to some of Apple's apps. This hidden software can then engage in nefarious activities to which the user is never the wiser.
In a description of the upcoming event carried on the Black Hat website, the researchers claim:
"Apple iOS devices are considered by many to be more secure than other mobile offerings. In evaluating this belief, we investigated the extent to which security threats were considered when performing everyday activities such as charging a device. The results were alarming: despite the plethora of defense mechanisms in iOS, we successfully injected arbitrary software into current-generation Apple devices running the latest operating system (OS) software. All users are affected, as our approach requires neither a jailbroken device nor user interaction."
They discovered how the capabilities of the USB standard as used in the charger can be used in such a way as to bypass Apple's own built-in protections against arbitrary software installation.
The researchers then built a compromised charger as a proof of concept of their findings. Dubbed, "Mactans", this charger was built using a BeagleBoard.
"This hardware was selected to demonstrate the ease with which innocent-looking, malicious USB chargers can be constructed. While Mactans was built with limited amount of time and a small budget, we also briefly consider what more motivated, well-funded adversaries could accomplish," the researchers point out.
There's some good news: the researchers have also identified a few ways in which users can protect themselves and have a few suggested security improvements Apple could make which would make the hack "substantially harder" to accomplish.
While the research has specifically addressed Apple devices, it's evident that the hack requires use of a USB-based charger. While nothing has been explicity said, this suggests any device -- including non-Apple devices -- may be vulnerable to hack attacks comprising compromised chargers designed to undermine USB.
It is also important to note that Apple has migrated away from USB-based chargers to new systems based on the Intel/Apple-developed Lightning technology. This implies the hack won't be effective on current generations of iPhone.
Malware for the people
All the same, mobile device security isn't an Apple-only anxiety. All responsible OS and device vendors are locked in constant battle with malware makers as they attempt to ensure good security for their consumer and enterprise clients' digital lives.
Android attracts the majority of mobile device malware, so it's no great surprise that several strands at Black Hat look at security on these devices, including revelation of a bug revealed to Google earlier this year. This affects the OS root and can enable system access and control by hackers. A "wide number" of Android devices are vulnerable to the flaw and while the researchers will introduce solutions for vendors, the presentation implies that a substantial number of users will remain vulnerable, given the dysfunctional nature of software upgrades on the platform.
A second Android-related presentation will show how an Android device can be converted into a SpyPhone, offering a remotely based miscreant access to call and SMS interception, email and contact access, and even the capacity to activate the camera and microphone without being detected.
Additional strands within this year's Black Hat event show malware makers are already looking to exploit the connected future, with exploits potentially threatening home automation, surveillance and M2M devices all in discussion at the event.
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