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iPhone users now fear security patches, say analysts

Apple's last security update crippled unlocked phones

October 1, 2007 12:00 PM ET

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

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

But what caught the attention of security analysts was the news that the update "bricked," or disabled, iPhones that had been modified to work with networks other than AT&T's, said Andrew Storms, director of security operations at nCircle Network Security Inc.

"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, said another analyst, Garter Inc.'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 corporate users, he said, is that it forces them to make a choice between spending additional time testing new features before deploying patches or forgoing the fixes altogether.

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 Corp. 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 antipiracy 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 has been guilty of that in the past, when it has issued fixes but hasn't disclosed the underlying vulnerabilities, perhaps in an attempt to keep the bug count artificially low.

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