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Researcher warns of unpatched iPhone bugs

Flaws in Mail and Safari could be used by phishers and spammers, browser expert says

July 23, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Security vulnerabilities in the iPhone's e-mail application and Safari Web browser can be used by phishers to dupe users into visiting malicious sites or by spammers to flood the phone's in-box with junk mail, a researcher warned today.

Browser vulnerability researcher Aviv Raff said he reported three separate bugs to Apple Inc. about two weeks ago: two in the iPhone Mail program and one in its Safari browser.

Apple has acknowledged that the two vulnerabilities in Mail are security issues, Raff said, but the company is currently undecided on whether the Safari flaw meets its security bug criteria. At times, Apple has balked at labeling problems as security vulnerabilities, notably in May, when it initially said the so-called "carpet bomb" bug was not security-related. A month later, Apple did patch Safari to stymie the kind of attacks that Raff and other researchers had outlined.

"By creating a specially crafted URL and sending it via an e-mail [message], an attacker can convince the user that the spoofed URL, showed in the Mail application, is from a trusted domain such as a bank, PayPal or social networks," Raff said in a post to his blog Wednesday afternoon. "When clicking on the URL, the Safari browser will be opened, [and] the spoofed URL, showed in the address bar, will still be viewed by the victim as if it is of a trusted domain."

In lieu of any patches, Raff urged users to refrain from following links embedded in messages. If they want to avoid spam, he recommended that they stop using the iPhone's e-mail application completely.

Raff was hesitant to talk about the technical details of any of the three bugs in a follow-up interview conducted using instant messaging, saying that he would not disclose any specifics until Apple patches the problems. But when asked whether the spoofing flaws in Mail and Safari might be somehow related to protocol-handler issues -- a common source of bugs in browsers for more than a year now -- Raff at first said, "No, nothing to do with protocol handling." However, moments later, he added: "Hmmm. Let me rephrase it. Almost nothing to do with protocol handling."

The spam-related flaw in Mail is a "very basic design flaw" that can make an e-mail account more vulnerable to spam, Raff said. "I can't say more about this, as it may reveal the actual issue."

That bug has surfaced before in other versions of Apple's Mail software -- the company bundles a much brawnier edition with Mac OS X -- and has been patched in those versions, said Raff.

Both the older Version 1.1.4 of the iPhone's software and the recently-released Version 2.0 harbor the three bugs. Raff said that exploiting any of the three bugs was "trivial" and has crafted proofs of concept to demonstrate possible attacks.

Apple did not immediately respond to a request for confirmation of Raff's reports.

Read more about Security in Computerworld's Security Topic Center.



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