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Researchers claim first iPhone vulnerability; exploit steals data, operates phone

Apple has until Aug. 2 to patch; after that, details go public at Black Hat

July 23, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Three security researchers claimed Sunday that they have found the first exploitable vulnerability in Apple Inc.'s iPhone, a flaw that allows them to steal any data from the device or even to turn it into a remote surveillance tool.

The trio -- Charles Miller, formerly with the National Security Agency; Jake Honoroff; and Joshua Mason of Baltimore-based Independent Security Evaluators (ISE) -- have notified Apple of the vulnerability and given the company less than two weeks to fix the bug before Miller presents more information at the Black Hat conference on Aug. 2.

According to a paper posted by the three (download PDF), they rooted out a vulnerability in the iPhone's version of Safari using "fuzzing" tools and wrote a proof-of-concept exploit that can be delivered from a malicious Web site or using "man in the middle" tactics to trick users into connecting to a malicious wireless access point.

Once the exploit runs, it's essentially game over, the researchers said: The iPhone is owned. "In our proof of concept, this code reads the log of SMS messages, the address book, the call history and the voicemail data," the researchers wrote on the ISE site. "It then transmits all this information to the attacker."

But wait -- there's more!

That, however, could be just the beginning.

The researchers claimed that a second exploit actually operated the iPhone remotely once the device was hijacked. "When we viewed a second HTML page in our iPhone, it ran the second exploit payload which forced [the iPhone] to make a system sound and vibrate for a second," they said in the paper. "Alternately, by using other API functions we discovered, the exploit could have dialed phone numbers, sent text messages, or recorded audio (as a bugging device) and transmitted it over the network for later collection by a malicious party."

The vulnerability was reported to Apple last Tuesday, July 17. "We proposed a fix they could include in a future iPhone update," the researchers said, "but we don't know if they plan to do so. They responded and are looking into it."

In an e-mail late Sunday night, Apple spokeswoman Lynn Fox would only say: "Apple takes security very seriously and has a great track record of addressing potential vulnerabilities before they can affect users. We're looking into the report submitted by I.S.E. and always welcome feedback on how to improve our security." She declined to answer questions about the Aug. 2 deadline, whether Apple would issue a patch before then, or what the company thought of the way the trio disclosed the vulnerability.

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