Security

Apple patching serious SMS vulnerability on iPhone

Apple may be working to fix an iPhone vulnerability that could possibly allow an attacker to remotely install and run unsigned software code with root access to the phone.

The theoretical attack in question exploits a weakness in the way iPhones handle text messages received via SMS (Short Message Service), said security researcher Charlie Miller, during a presentation at the SyScan conference in Singapore on Thursday. He didn’t provide a detailed technical description of the SMS vulnerability.

Miller, the principal security analyst at Independent Security Evaluators, is an authority on MacOS X security, and is a co-author of The Mac Hacker’s Handbook. He and another security researcher, Colin Mulliner, discovered the SMS vulnerability together.

An SMS flaw might allow an attacker to run software code on the phone that is sent by SMS over a mobile operator’s network. In Miller’s case, it appears he used the flaw he found to remotely crash an iPhone, a sign that a more serious attack might be possible.

“I don’t have a working exploit for it, just a suspicious looking crash,” Miller said.

If so, the malicious code could theoretically include commands to monitor the location of the phone using GPS, turn on the phone’s microphone to eavesdrop on conversations, or make the phone join a distributed denial of service attack or a botnet, Miller said

Miller reported the vulnerability to Apple, hoping it will get fixed. He plans to discuss the flaw further during a presentation at the Black Hat USA conference in Las Vegas.

Despite the SMS vulnerability, the stripped-down version of Mac OS X used in the iPhone makes it more secure than computers running the full-blown operating system, Miller said.

For starters, the stripped-down version of the OS presents fewer options for attackers, removing applications and features such as support for Adobe Flash and Java, which they might otherwise be able to exploit for vulnerabilities. In addition, the iPhone includes hardware protection for data stored in memory and the phone is designed to only run software code that has been digitally signed by Apple.

The iPhone also requires applications to run in a sandbox, a security feature that isolates them from other applications and limits their access to the phone’s capabilities. But SMS offers a way for attackers to get greater access to the phone’s capabilities, Miller said.

“SMS is a great vector to attack the iPhone,” he said.

Most often used to send brief text messages between cell phones, SMS can also send binary code to an iPhone, which then processes the code without any user interaction. Each SMS message is limited to 140 bytes, but longer sequences can be sent to the phone as multiple messages that are automatically reassembled.

This feature allows larger programs to be delivered to a phone, Miller said.

In addition, vulnerabilities found in the iPhone’s SMS function give an attacker root access to the handset, Miller said. That’s not the case for the iPhone’s other applications, such as its browser, where vulnerabilities only give an attacker access to the application’s sandbox.

“The iPhone is more secure than OS X, but SMS could be a critical vulnerability,” Miller said.

This article was updated on July 3 to fix a reporting error that incorrectly reported that Apple is fixing a flaw in the way the iPhone handles SMS messages. There is no confirmation that such a fix is in the works, although the researcher who found the bug hopes it will be fixed. In addition, the story has been clarified to stress the theoretical nature of attacks taking advantage of an SMS flaw on the iPhone. Also, the article has been updated to add more comment about the vulnerability from Miller and more details of Miller’s employer.

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