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Jesus Phone needs an exorcist

Security flaw means demonic possession for Apple iPhone

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Security researchers have discovered a security flaw in Apple's iPhone that could allow miscreants to wreak havoc on users of the highly-revered device, which has been dubbed the Jesus Phone by its more blindly faithful users.

A proof-of-concept website that exploits the vulnerability secretly siphons SMS text messages, contact information, call history and voice mail. And one of the researchers who wrote it says it would be trivial to effect other misdeeds, including turning the iPhone into a bugging device by surreptitiously switching on the audio recorder and uploading audio files. Stealing a user's passwords, email messages and browsing history is also possible.

The exploit works silently and only requires that an iPhone user visit a maliciously-crafted website. It took less than three days for the team to discover the vulnerability and less than two weeks to devise the exploit. In all, about 215 person hours were devoted to the project.

What's more, "there are serious problems with the design and implementation of security on the iPhone," according to an executive summary prepared by researchers, who work for a firm called Independent Security Evaluators. Most notably, they say, the iPhone gives full administrative privileges to each process running on the device, a decision considered unorthodox among many in the security industry.

"The mail application really doesn't have any reason to read the text messages and the text messages (reader) really doesn't have any reason to read the mail," Charlie Miller, principle security analyst for Independent Security Evaluators, told The Reg. "Security 101 is you limit the amount of information available to the least amount necessary. That's not happening here."

Among other design problems, the iPhone fails to randomize addresses and and non-executable heaps, commonly used techniques designed to thwart security exploits.

Researchers notified Apple of the vulnerability early last week and the company is investigating the claim, according to Independent Security Evaluators. Miller plans to provide additional details about the vulnerability next week at the Black Hat Security Conference in Las Vegas.

Apple representatives didn't respond to a request for comment.

The team found other security weaknesses as well. Once a user has connected to a wireless access point, the iPhone will automatically connect to all other access points that have the same SSID name and encryption type. This could cause an iPhone user to unwittingly connect to wireless networks that have booby-trapped DNS servers or other maliciously crafted settings.

The disclosure by Independent Security Evaluators comes amid a steady stream of big and small hacks designed to unlock latent features in the iPhone and demonstrate that the much-vaunted device is, after all, a mere mortal in the world of electronics.

Among other recent iPhone subversions of note: Someone or something called "NightWatch" has actually compiled and launched an independent application on the device Apple has tried so hard to lock down. This is the result of the "ARM/Mach-O Toolchain," which amounts to a compiler that streamlines the creation of applications that will run on the iPhone. "Nightwatch" is in process of testing the compiler and plans to publicly release it soon, according to the iPhone Dev Wiki.

A video demonstrating the Independent Security Evaluators discovery is available here. ®

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