Apple brushoff leads researcher to detail iPhone security flaws

Tired of getting the brushoff from Apple Inc., Israeli researcher Aviv Raff today disclosed technical details about a pair of iPhone security flaws that he first reported more than two months ago.

Raff, best known as a browser vulnerability researcher, told Apple in July that he had uncovered bugs in the iPhone’s Mail application as well as in its version of Safari that could be used to trick users into clicking on malicious links and boost the amount of spam they face.

He had noted that security vulnerabilities in the iPhone’s e-mail application and Safari Web browser could be used by phishers to dupe users into visiting malicious sites or by spammers to flood the phone’s Inbox with junk mail.

Then as recently as two weeks ago Aviv Raff reported three separate bugs to Apple Inc., two in the iPhone Mail program and one in its Safari browser.

The browser vulnerability researcher said after Apple continued to defer patching and declined to set a date for fixing the flaws, he decided to go public. “Two and a half months later, and still there is no patch for those vulnerabilities,” he complained in a post to his blog.

“I’ve asked Apple several times for a schedule, but they have refused to provide the fix date. Three versions (v2.0.1, v2.02, v2.1) have been released since I provided them with the details, and they are still ‘working on it.'”

In July, when he first pointed out the bugs, Raff discussed risks to users in a blog posting.

“By creating a specially crafted URL and sending it via an e-mail [message], an attacker can convince the user that the spoofed URL, showed in the Mail application, is from a trusted domain such as a bank, PayPal or social networks,” he wrote.

“When clicking on the URL, the Safari browser will be opened, [and] the spoofed URL, showed in the address bar, will still be viewed by the victim as if it is of a trusted domain.”

In lieu of any patches, the researcher had urged users to refrain from following links embedded in messages. If they want to avoid spam, he recommended that they stop using the iPhone’s e-mail application completely.

At the time, Raff was hesitant to talk about the technical details of any of the three bugs, saying that he would not disclose any specifics until Apple patches the problems.

But Apple’s alleged non-response has caused him to now release these details.

In an interview, Raff said that although he’s used this tactic before to pressure a vendor into patching, he’s reserved it for companies that “act irresponsibly, as Apple did this time and other vendors have done other times.”

Raff said he last contacted Apple a week ago.

Apple last patched the iPhone on Sept. 12, when it issued fixes for eight security vulnerabilities as part of the v2.1 update.

Both Mail and Safari truncate URLs to accommodate the iPhone’s small screen, said Raff, a bug that hackers could exploit by feeding malicious links via HTML messages.

Because Mail cuts out the middle portion of a long URL, the attacker could spoof a legitimate domain by using a legitimate service such as Facebook to provide the first bits of the address but tuck the malicious part of the URL after the iPhone’s cutoff.

Raff demonstrated a possible exploit by creating a link that, at least to an iPhone owner, appeared to be a URL to Facebook’s sign-in site, but was actually a link to an image he’d posted on his own domain.

“The user will have to look carefully at all links that he clicks,” said Raff when asked for advice on deflecting such attacks. “But this takes a lot of effort as Safari automatically jumps to the end of the URL when clicking on the address bar.”

He called the other iPhone bug “a pretty dumb design flaw” that made it easier for spammers to identify valid e-mail accounts, and thus mark them for more spam.

Because the iPhone automatically downloads images attachments, it would be a cinch for spammers to identify a working e-mail account.

“The spammer who controls the remote server will know that you have read the message and will mark your mail account as active in order to send you more spam,” said Raff. Since there is no way to disable auto-image download on the iPhone, he recommended that iPhone users refrain from using Mail until Apple patches the problem.

The same bug has surfaced before in other versions of Apple’s Mail software — the company bundles a much brawnier edition with Mac OS X — but those versions have long been patched.

Claiming that the flaws were easily fixed, Raff called on Apple to get on the stick. “It’s only a matter of time until the bad guys will find these problems,” he said.

Raff isn’t the first security researcher to knock Apple’s patching process. Last month, two other researchers, including Charlie Miller, who is even better known than Raff in the Mac and iPhone vulnerability arena, took Apple to task for dumping several updates on users in a short time, and without warning.

At times, Apple has balked at labeling problems as security vulnerabilities, notably in May, when it initially said the so-called “carpet bomb” bug was not security-related.

A month later, Apple did patch Safari to stymie the kind of attacks that Raff and other researchers had outlined.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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