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Apple preps iOS fix as Germany warns of iPhone peril

Flick a slider, get rooted

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Apple plans to issue fixes for two security flaws that when exploited together allow attackers to remotely install malicious apps on iPhones, iPads, and iPod touches.

Although the critical vulnerabilities surfaced over the weekend, Apple officials didn't acknowledge them until Wednesday, the same day the German government warned that the vulnerabilities could be exploited when users viewed booby-trapped websites or email messages. No other user action is required.

CNET reported that an Apple spokeswoman issued a statement saying the company is aware of the bugs and “we have already developed a fix and it will be available to customers in an upcoming software update.” The statement didn't say when the update would be released.

So far, the only documented exploit of the bugs is on Jailbreakme.com, a site that makes it possible to jailbreak the Apple devices by doing nothing more than visiting the site and flicking a slider. The hack is innocuous and transparent, but there's nothing preventing malicious attackers from using the same vulnerabilities to do much more nefarious things — and that could happen soon, the German Federal Office for Information Security warned.

"It has to be expected that hackers will soon use the weak spots for attacks," the agency said in a statement. “This allows potential attackers access to the complete system, including administrator rights.”

The Jailbreakme site exploits two distinct iOS vulnerabilities to pull off the hack. The first exploits a bug in Apple software that parses fonts in PDF files. That allows hackers to inject code of their choosing into the document-viewing app. A second bug allows them to break out of a security sandbox built into the devices so the code can access the root of the device.

Without a doubt, the unpatched vulnerabilities are the most serious to hit an unlocked mobile device from Apple since the iPhone debuted in 2007. If we didn't know better, we'd think the bugs were spawned by Adobe or Microsoft, considering the minimal amount of user interaction required and the ability of a successful exploit to completely root a device.

As such, iPhone users may want to think twice about following links included in Twitter, chat messages, and emails until the patch is released. Websense has a list here of alternate browsers that require a user to click on a button before PDFs are opened.

But because iPhones by default automatically open PDFs included in email, truly paranoid users may want to hold off checking email until the patch is released. ®

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