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Spyware threat haunts squeaky-clean iPhones

Research finds rogue app privacy risks to regulation models

Application security programs and practises

Apple's line that iPhone users who toe the line and resist any temptation to jailbreak, unlock or otherwise desecrate their smartphone are protected from threats has been called into question by new research.

Swiss iPhone developer Nicolas Seriot has published research on security shortcomings that could create a mechanism for hackers to lift data from regulation iPhones. Email accounts, keyboard entries held in cache and browser history files are all potentially exposed by a malicious app.

Seriot has developed a proof of concept app, called SpyPhone, in order to demonstrate how Apple’s own APIs might be misused to read or edit a user's address book, browse web surfing history, recent GPS position and more.

Attack scenarios detailed by Seriot would rely on tricking Apple into granting approval to a malicious app, a considerable though perhaps not unsurmountable hurdle for hackers.

Apple's reviewers might be fooled by hackers who delayed the activation of their spyware. Payload encryption might also be used to obscure the behaviour of malicious code.

No exploits or third-party APIs would be involved in such a rogue app.

The security researcher detailed the potential iPhone privacy risks he discovered in a talk in Geneva on Wednesday, during which he also outlined possible mobile security defence strategies (summary here (pdf)).

Users should be prompted to authorise read or read-write access to iPhone AddressBooks. Seriot also suggests adding firewall functionality onto the device (but since firewalls need to run in the background all the time this could result in a significant performance hit).

More straightforwardly, Seriot suggests that keyboard cache on iPhones should be a OS service and not so readily available to applications. Wi-Fi connection history ought to be better hidden, he suggests.

Seriot concludes that although iPhone is still more secure than other platforms, sandboxing and AppStore reviews are necessary and ought to be improved. ®

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