By John Schwartz
The New York Times
July 23, 2007
A team of computer security consultants say they have found a flaw in
Apples wildly popular iPhone that allows them to take control of the
The researchers, working for Independent Security Evaluators, a company
that tests its clients computer security by hacking it, said that they
could take control of iPhones through a WiFi connection or by tricking
users into going to a Web site that contains malicious code. The hack,
the first reported, allowed them to tap the wealth of personal
information the phones contain.
Although Apple built considerable security measures into its device,
said Charles A. Miller, the principal security analyst for the firm,
Once you did manage to find a hole, you were in complete control. The
firm, based in Baltimore, alerted Apple about the vulnerability this
week and recommended a software patch that could solve the problem.
A spokeswoman for Apple, Lynn Fox, said, Apple takes security very
seriously and has a great track record of addressing potential
vulnerabilities before they can affect users.
"Were looking into the report submitted by I.S.E. and always welcome
feedback on how to improve our security, she said."
There is no evidence that this flaw had been exploited or that users had
Dr. Miller, a former employee of the National Security Agency who has a
doctorate in computer science, demonstrated the hack to a reporter by
using his iPhones Web browser to visit a Web site of his own design.
Once he was there, the site injected a bit of code into the iPhone that
then took over the phone. The phone promptly followed instructions to
transmit a set of files to the attacking computer that included recent
text messages including one that had been sent to the reporters
cellphone moments before as well as telephone contacts and e-mail
We can get any file we want, he said. Potentially, he added, the attack
could be used to program the phone to make calls, running up large bills
or even turning it into a portable bugging device.
Steven M. Bellovin, a professor of computer science at Columbia
University, said, This looks like a very genuine hack. Mr. Bellovin, who
was for many years a computer security expert at AT&T Labs Research,
said the vulnerability of the iPhone was an inevitable result of the
long-anticipated convergence of computing and telephony.
Weve been hearing for a few years now that viruses and worms were going
to be a problem on cellphones as they became a little more powerful, and
were there, he said. The iPhone is a full-fledged computer, he noted,
and sure enough, its got computer-grade problems.
He said he suspected that phones based on the Windows mobile operating
system would be similarly attackable, though he had not yet heard of any
Its not the end of the world; its not the end of the iPhone, he said,
any more than the regular revelations of vulnerabilities in computer
browser software have killed off computing. It is a sign that you cannot
let down your guard. It is a sign that we need to build software and
Details on the vulnerability, but not a step-by-step guide to hacking
the phone, can be found at www.exploitingiphone.com, which the
researchers said would be unveiled today.
Hackers around the world have been trying to unveil the secrets of the
iPhone since its release last month; most have focused their efforts on
unlocking the phone from its sole wireless provider, AT&T, and getting
unauthorized programs to run on it. The iPhone is a closed system that
cannot accept outside programs and can be used only with the AT&T
Some of those hackers have posted bulletins of their progress on the
Web. A posting went up on Friday that a hacker going by the name of
Nightwatch had created and started an independent program on the phone.
The Independent Security Evaluators researchers were able to crack the
phones software in a week, said Aviel D. Rubin, the firms founder and
the technical director of the Information Security Institute at Johns
Hopkins University. Mr. Rubin, who bought an iPhone the day after the
cellphone was released, said in an interview that he had approached
three colleagues, Dr. Miller, Joshua Mason and Jake Honoroff, and
offered them an enticing prize if they would try to crack the iPhone. I
told the guys I would buy them iPhones.
Dr. Miller had already been exploring weaknesses in the computer
versions of Safari, Apples Web browser, and was planning to reveal that
vulnerability, a relatively common kind of flaw known as a buffer
overflow, at the Black Hat computer security conference next month. Dr.
Miller instantly thought to see whether the phone, which uses a version
of Safari, would be as vulnerable.
Mr. Rubin said the research was not intended to show that the iPhone was
necessarily more vulnerable to hacking than other phones, or that Apple
products were less secure than those from other companies. Anything as
complex as a computer which is what this phone is is going to have
vulnerabilities, he said.
There are far more viruses, worms and other malicious software affecting
Windows systems than Apple systems. But Mr. Rubin said that Apple
products have drawn fewer attacks because the computers have fewer
users, and hackers reach for the greatest impact.
Windows gets hacked all the time not because it is more insecure than
Apple, but because 95 percent of computer users are on Windows, he said.
The other 5 percent have enjoyed a honeymoon that will eventually come
to an end.
The iPhone is becoming a victim of its own success, he said. The irony
is that the more popular something is, the more insecure it becomes,
because popularity paints a large target on its back.
Mr. Rubin said his goal was to discover vulnerabilities and warn of them
so that companies would strengthen their products and consumers would
not be lulled into thinking that the technology they use was completely
Mr. Rubin said, I will think twice before getting on a random public
WiFi network now, but his overall opinion of the phone has not changed.
Youd have to pry it out of my cold, dead hands to get it away from me,
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company
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