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Posts Tagged ‘iPhone’

First Security Breach In The App Store

November 8, 2011 Leave a comment

It looks like the Judgment Day for iOS has finally arrived. Until today the robustness of the AppStore has always been considered one of the strengths of the Apple Model: unlike the Android Market, which is constantly under attack for its weak security model that allowed too many malicious users to upload malicious applications, a strict control policy had prevented, at least so far, the same destiny for the mobile Apple Application.

Unfortunately Charlie Miller, an old acquaintance of the Apple Supporters, thought that winning three Pwn2Owns in the last four years (2008, 2009 and 2011) exploiting practically every Apple Vulnerability was not enough. So he decided consequently to attack Cupertino directly inside its AppStore security model.

The story begins early last year, after the release of iOS 4.3 when the researcher became suspicious of a possible flaw in the code signing of Apple’s mobile devices.

As stated in the original article by Forbes:

To increase the speed of the phone’s browser, Apple allowed javascript code from the Web to run on a much deeper level in the device’s memory than it had in previous versions of the operating system. In fact, the browser’s speed increase had forced Apple to create an exception for the browser to run unapproved code in a region of the device’s memory, which until then had been impossible. (Apple uses other security restrictions to prevent untrusted websites from using that exception to take control of the phone.)

The next step was to discover a bug that allowed to expand that code-running exception to any application, and that is exactly what he did, but still this was not enough.

After discovering the bug, he submitted an App to the App Store exploiting the vulnerability. The App was approved and behaved as expected (actually a behaviour to which the victims of Android malware are quite familiar): the app was able to phone home to a remote computer downloading new unapproved commands onto the device and executing them at will, including stealing the user’s photos, reading contacts, making the phone vibrate or play sounds, or otherwise repurposing normal iOS app functions for malicious ends.

This method will be presented at the SysCan Conference in Taiwan next week even if a video demonstrations of the exploit is already available.

Last but not least: as a reward for discovering the bug, Apple has decided to revoke to Miller the Developer’s License.

Probably Android users will be the happiest to learn that, as stated by Miller:

Android has been like the Wild West. And this bug basically reduces the security of iOS to that of Android.

At least for one thing (security), iOS and Android are identical.

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The Dangerous Liaisons (Updated)

August 22, 2011 1 comment

Did you know that a smartphone might involve as many as 250,000 patent claims? You may easily understand why the $ 4.5 billion auction to buy 6,000 Nortel patents by the consortium formed by Apple, Microsoft, Research in Motion, Sony Ericsson and EMC was so cruel. You may also easily understand why Google, the loser of the Nortel auction, decided to react immediately acquiring Motorola and its patent portfolio made of more than 17,000 approved patents (and another 7,500 patents filed and pending approval) for the large sum of $ 12.5 billion.

Said in few words, the mobile arena is getting more and more agressive and cruel. For this reason, a litte bit for curosity, a little bit for fun, I decided to draw a chart (and a table) showing all the moves of the giant players in this mobile chessboard. Although deliberately incomplete (I did not show in the table the patent saga of NTP Inc. against the rest of the world and the settlement of Motorola vs RIM), it gives a good idea of the dangerous intersections involving partnership, fees, alliances and, most of all, lawsuits… With the strange paradox that some companies (read Apple and Samsung) are enemies before the court, but in the same time business partners.

While visualizing the idea I stumbled upon this similar graph showing the status of the mobile arena on 8 Oct 2010. I decided to use the same layout, omitting some informations, but updating it to the current date. The graph is a little bit confusing, but the confusion of the arrows reflects betten than a thousand words the real situation.

Anyway the war will not stop here: the next targets? Interdigital Inc. with its 8,800 patents  which are attracting several bidders such as Apple, Nokia and Qualcomm; and, most of all, Kodak, whose survival depends on the auction of the 10% of its patent portfolio (1,100 patents), valued as high as $3 billion which are vital to compensate the losses estimated in $2.5 billion.

As far as the table is concerned, in order to avoid repetitions, it only shows the status of the lawsuits and alliances from the perspective of Google, Apple and Microsoft. Enjoy your read and the 250,000 patent claims on your smartphone!

Company Filed Suit Against Has technological alliance with Filed Suite From:
  No one (at least so far!)

Of course Google licensees his Mobile OS to HTC and Samsung (in rigorous alphabetical order), and it is the driver for the impressive market share growthof Samsung and HTC.

In an effort to defend Android’s Intellettual Property “to supercharge the Android ecosystem and will enhance competition in mobile computing”, on Aug 15 2011, Google announced the intention to acquire Motorola Mobility with a $12.5 billion deal. Motorola has nearly 17,000 patents.

Aug 12 2010: Oracle has filed suit against Google for infringing on copyrights and patents related to Java,. Oracle claimed Google “knowingly, directly and repeatedly infringed Oracle’s Java-related intellectual property”. Android uses a light proprietary Java Virtual Machine, Dalvik VM, which, according to Oracle infringes one or more claims of each of United States Patents Nos. 6,125,447; 6,192,476; 5,966,702; 7,426,720; RE38,104; 6,910,205; and 6,061,520.

The case is in U.S. District Court, Northern District of California, is Oracle America, Inc v. Google Inc, 10-3561.

The lawsuit is still pending and will likely take several months. The trial between Oracle and Google is expected to begin by November and Oracle is seeking damages “in the billions of dollars” from Google.

On Aug 1 2011, the judge overseeing the lawsuit Oracle filed over the Android mobile OS has denied Google’s attempt to get a potentially damaging e-mail redacted.

Mar 2 2010: Apple sued HTC for infringing on ten patents, nine of which involve technologies which apply to the iPhone, while one involves the use of gestures, but only in a specific use case.

The suit has been filed in the U.S. District Court in Delaware , alleging twenty instances of patent infringement. The company also petitioned the US  ITC to block the import of twelve phones designed and manufactured by HTC.

On Jul 15 2011 Apple won a preliminary patent ruling in an early judgment before the US ITC, in which HTC was found to have breached two of 10 patents held by Apple.

On Aug 8 2011 ITC  announced to have dediced to review Apple’s patent infringement complaint against HTC.

Oct 31 2010: In response to Motorola lawsuit against Apple, Apple sued Motorola and Motorola Mobility for Infringment on several Multi-Touch patents infringments in the Wisconsin Western District Court with two distinct lawsuits. A total of six patents are involved in the two lawsuits.

On Nov 23, 2010: US International Trading Commission announced to review Apple patent case against Motorola.

Apr 18 2011: Apple filed suit against Samsung for copying the design of its iPad and iPhone with its smartphones and tablets.

Aug 10 2011: European customs officers have been ordered to seize shipments of Samsung’s Galaxy Tab computers after the ruling late on Tuesday by a German patents court.

In the last days Apple has been accused of presenting inaccurate evidence against Samsung.

Aug 24 2011: Samsung has been banned from selling some galaxy phones in the Netherlands. The ban is set to begin on October 13, but Samsung doesn’t seem to be taking it too hard.

On Jul 1 2011 the intellectual property of the Canada giant Nortel (in Bankrupt), involving 6,000 patents, was sold for $4.5 billion, in a dramatic auction, to a consortium formed by Apple, Microsoft, RIM, Sony, EMC and Ericsson. Google was the other competitor (and the big looser) for the deal. This event acted as a trigger for the acquisition of Motorola Mobility by Google.

On Aug 3 2011, In a post to the Official Google Blog, Google Senior Vice President and Chief Legal Officer David Drummond said that Apple, Microsoft, Oracle, and others have waged “a hostile, organized campaign against Android” by snapping up patents from Novell and Nortel and asking Google for high licensing fees for every Android device”, accusing them of Patent Bulying.

Curiously, Apple is one of the main technological partners of Samsung for displays and semi-conductors. Samsung produces Apple’s A4 systems-on-a-chip (SoC) and also the two companies collaborate for iPad displays (Apple is moving from LG to Samsung because oof quality issues of the former). Nevertheless the lawsuits between the two companies are compromising their relationships so that Apple is evaluating a new supplier (TSMC) for its A6 nexy generation chipset.

Oct 22 2009: Nokia sued Apple in Delaware court for infringing on  ten patents related to GSM, UMTS, and WLAN standards that Nokia states they established after investing more than EUR 40 billion in R&D over the last 20 years.

On Jun 14 2011 Apple agreed to pay between $300m and $600m to cover the 111m iPhones sold since its launch in 2007. Although the exact number was not specified, additional yearly fees could be part of the agreement.

On Jan 2010 Kodak sued Apple and RIM claiming Apple is infringing its 2001 patent covering technology that enables a camera to preview low-resolution versions of a moving image while recording still images at higher resolutions. The cases were filed in U.S. District Court in Rochester, N.Y., as well as the U.S. ITC.

On Apr 2010 Apple argues that some Kodak still and video camera products violate two of its patents

On Jul 2011: While Kodak’s claim is pending, the commission rules on Apple’s complaint and says Kodak’s digital-camera technology doesn’t violate Apple’s patents.

Oct 6 2010: Motorola sued Apple for patent infringement in three separate complaints; in district courts in Illinois and Florida and a separate complaint filed with the U.S. International Trade Commission. The suits covered 18 different patents, infiringed by Apple’s iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, and certain Mac computers.

The Motorola patents include wireless communication technologies, such as WCDMA (3G), GPRS, 802.11 and antenna design, and key smartphone technologies including wireless e-mail, proximity sensing, software application management, location-based services and multi-device synchronization.

Jan 12 2011: Microsoft has motioned for a summary judgment to block Apple from trademarking the phrase “app store,” as it filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) on July 17, 2008.

Mar 30 2011: Microsoft filed a second objection to Apple’s enduring pursuit to trademark the phrase “app store hiring a linguist, Dr. Ronald Butters, to go head-to-head against Apple’s own hired linguist, Robert A. Leonard.

On Jul 1 2011 US ITC said Apple has violated two S3 Graphics Co. patents in its Mac OS X operating system, but not in the iOS platform. Although not directly related to Mobile, this ruling is meaningful since S3 has been acquired by HTC on Jul 6 2011 for $300 million in order to use their patents in the fight against Apple.

HTC expects final ruling on Apple-S3 graphics case in November.

On Aug 16 2011 HTC filed a new lawsuit against Apple in Delaware’s US District Court, in an escalation of the legal battle between the two smartphone giants. HTC accused Apple to have infringed three of HTC’s patents through its sale of devices including iPads, iPods, iPhones and Macintosh computers.

Oct 1 2010: Microsoft sued Motorola for patent infringement relating to the company’s Android-based smartphones. Microsoft filed its complaint with the International Trade Commission and in a Washington state district court. At issue are nine patents that deal with, among others, sending and receiving e-mail, managing and syncing calendars and contacts, and managing a phone’s memory.

Patent dispute will begin from Aug 21 2011, the hearing procedure can take up to 10 days, the judgment procedure is expected to reach the final verdict point only in March 2012.

Nov 9 2010: Microsoft sued again Motorola for charging excessive royalties on network technology used in Microsoft’s Xbox game system.

Feb 11 2011: a deal with the Devil, Microsoft and Nokia announce their plansto form a broad strategic partnership that would use their complementary strengths and expertise to create a new global mobile ecosystem.

Besides the alliances with Apple and RIM (see the corresponding cell), on May 12 2011 Microsoft has teamed up with HTC, Nokia and Sony Ericsson in Europe, filing a challenge seeking to invalidate Apple’s trademarks on the phrases “App Store” and “Appstore.”

Nov 11 2010: Motorola Mobility sued Microsoft with the U.S. District Courts for the Southern District of Florida and the Western District of Wisconsin alleging infringement of sixteen patents by Microsoft’s PC and Server software, Windows mobile software and Xbox products.

Motorola Mobility asked for the infringing devices to be barred from importation into the United States.

On Dec 21 2010, ITC has agreed to hear the complaint.


Phonarchy in the U.K.

July 15, 2011 1 comment

It looks like that the Perfidious Albion is not what one should exactly define a Paradise for Mobile Security. Not only the echoes of the Scandal concerning “voicemail hacking” led the infamous tabloid News Of the World to close on Sunday, the 10th of July 2011, and Rebekah Brooks to resign as CEO of News International today; but also the flow of events has unexpectedly brought mobile security issues to the attention of a wider audience, no more confined to the sole and exclusive attention of information security professionals.

This is partially due to the relative easiness in implementing similar hacking techniques in mobile communications, which is raising doubts and misgivings in many other countries. As a matter of fact, as actually happened, voicemail hacking is relatively easy to implement and is based, as usual, on two factors:

  • From the user perspective, on the poor attention for default (in)security settings;
  • From the operator perspective, on the necessary trade-off between security, user experience, and convenience, (almost) always favoring the latter, which turns out not to be an optimal choice from a security perspective.

A lethal mix wich may be quite easily exploited by a balanced blend made of (little) hacking and (a lot of) social engineering. At this link a really complete and interesting description very helpful to understand how relatively easy is to perform voicemail hacking with some U.K. operators (but keep in mind that procedures vary from Operator to Operator). Accorrding to the above quoted article, in theory, it is possible to elude the meshes of the security procedures of the operators, simply calling the voicemail of the victim impersonating the legitimate user, claiming to have forgotten the PIN and voila, that’s it!

Voicemail hacking does not need further components, but unfortunately is not the only issue that may happen: in theory entire conversations may be hijacked (and unfortunately it is something we are quite familiar to, here in Italy). The Security Process of a phone conversations is an end-to-end chain, inside which technology is only a component, and the human factor is the weakest link. In this context weak means leak so that often it happens that some information that should not be disclosed are delivered to media (even if irrelevant to any ongoing investigations) with devastating aftermaths for investigations themselves and for victims’ privacy.

The scenario is further complicated with the new generation of smartphones, where technology (and the ongoing process of Consumerization of Information Technology) leaves virtually no limits to the imagination of attackers: not only voicemail hacking, but also mobile malware (a threat which does not need the unintended cooperation of the Operator) capable of extracting any information from devices. The dramatic events in U.K. involved using stolen data for squalid journalistic purposes, but, since mobile devices are nowadays indispensable companions of our everyday lives, nothing prevents, in theory, to use the same or different methods to steal other kinds of information such as confidential data, banking transaction identifiers, etc… Do you really need a confirm? For instance the recent evolution of the Infamous ZiTMo mobile malware that has just landed on Android (the continuing metamorphosis of this malware is really meaningful: born on the Windows platform, it has rapidly spread on Windows CE, Symbian, and now, last but not least, Android). Since it is expected that 5.6% of iPhones/Android handsets is going to be infected in the next 12 months, there is much to worry. In this context what happened in U.K. may constitute a dangerous precedent and a dramatic source of inspiration for organized cybercrime.

Fears that similar occurrences could happen in other countries are rapidly spreading. As a consequence some countries are moving fast to prevent them.

In the U.S., in wake of U.K. Hacking, Representative Mary Bono Mack, a California Republican who chairs the House subcommittee on commerce, manufacturing and trade, is contacting handset manufacturer companies including Apple, Google, Research in Motion, and wireless companies as well, such as AT&T, Verizon Wireless and Sprint Nextel, to determine if there are any vulnerabilities in cell phones or mobile devices which can be exploited by criminals and other unscrupulous individuals. Clearly the final target is to prevent similar events from ever happening in the United States.

For the Chronicle, on June 13 Bono Mack released draft legislation which aims to tighten data security for companies victims of data breaches. Under the proposal, companies that experience a breach that exposes consumer data would have 48 hours to contact law enforcement agencies and begin assessing the potential damage.

Immediately after U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder is considering investigation into News Corp. for the same reson.

Anyway U.S. is not the only country worried about, as similar concerns are raising in Canada, and I may easily imagine that other countries will soon deal the same stuff.

A final curious notice: a further confirm that U.K. is not the paradise for mobile security came this morning when I stumbled upon this wiki which happily shows how to hack a Vodafone femto cell (just released to public) in order to, among the other things, intercept traffic, perform call frauds (place calls or send SMS on on behalf of somebody else SIM card).

The best (or the worst, it depends on the points of view) is yet to come…

Switch Off The Revolution (With An Infrared Sensor)

Just a couple of months ago, in writing the first post about Mobile Warfare (which should have later become Consumerization of Warfare) I expressed some considerations about the growing need for illiberal government to prevent the use of mobile devices as preferred media for the rioters to capture live images of the events, and to spread the information all around the Globe by mean of Social Networks.

Cutting off the Internet has been the first clumsy countermeasure applied by Egypt and Syria, but it is really unlikely that this kind of massive preventive block will be applied again by other countries because of the huge dependence of Internet, which characterizes our epoch, and consequently, as a collateral damage, would stop other vital activities.

As a consequence, I hypothesized that possible future countermeasures will aim to make unusable directly the source of information (read mobile devices), and the media for sharing them (read social networks), relying upon a new generation of Cyber-warfare among which:

A massive Denial of Service for mobile devices through massive exploit of vulnerabilities (more and more common and pervasive on this kind of devices), through massive mobile malware deployment or also by mean of massive execution of mobile malware (as, for instance, Google did in order to remotely swipe the DroidDream malware). Honestly speaking I consider the latter option the less likely since I can easily imagine that no manufacturer will provide cooperation on this (but this does not prevent the fact that a single country could consider to leverage this channel).

No manufacturer will provide cooperation on this? Maybe… Too many times reality surpasses imagination, and when it comes to reality that surpasses the imagination, then surely it comes from Apple. This time, unfortunately, not in the sense that we’re used to (admiring products years ahead of the competition, which previously did not exist not even in our imagination), but in the sense that a patent recently filled by Apple could implicitly provide cooperation for illiberal governments to prevent smartphones to take live images of protests.

It looks like that Apple is Apple is developing software that will sense when a smartphone user is trying to record a live event, and then switch off the device’s camera (only the camera, the other functions will not be affected) by mean of infrared sensors directly installed on the device. The real reason is probably the need to prevent concertgoers to post footage of events on YouTube or other similar sites (at the expense of the organizers which sometimes sell sell their own recordings of the events), which could potentially allow Apple to negotiate better conditions with labels when dealing for placing music on sale on iTunes (and could also potentially provide another source of revenue by charging people to film live events).

But besides commercial considerations, there is another important aspect (a collateral damage I would say). The events of recent months have shown us that the concerts were not the only places where the phones have been used to capture live images. In North Africa and Middle East they have been used to document repression and illiberality. But what would have happened if this technology had really been developed? Probably it would have limited the effect of the winds of change in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and Libya, since Mobile Devices (and their cameras) played (and are playing) an important role to witness the real entity of the events.

Imagine if Apple’s device had been available to the Mubarak regime earlier this year, and Egyptian security forces had deployed it around Tahrir Square to disable cameras just before they sent in their thugs to disperse the crowd.

Would the global outcry that helped drive Mubarak from office have occurred if a blackout of protest videos had prevented us from viewing the crackdown?

This is more than speculation. since thousands of cellphone cameras in the Middle East and North Africa have been used to document human rights abuses and to share them with millions via social media. I went in Libya approximately a month before the beginning of the revolution and I was astonished by the number of iPhones noticed over there.

This is more than speculation also because the role of mobile technologies for the above mentioned events has been recognized also by Mr. Obama during his speech on Middle East.

As correctly stated, Smartphones like the iPhone and Droid are becoming extensions of ourselves. They are not simply tools to connect with friends and family, but a means to document the world around us, engage in political issues and organize with others. They literally put the power of the media in our own hands.

Apple’s proposed technology would take that power away, that is the reason why the community is moving in order to urge Steve Jobs to pull the plug on this technology.

Consumerization Of Warfare 2.0

June 21, 2011 2 comments

It looks like the consumerization of warfare is unstoppable and getting more and more mobile. After our first post of Jume the 16th, today I stumbled upon a couple of articles indicating the growing military interest for consumer technologies.

Network World reports that the National Security Agency is evaluating the use of COTS (Commercial Off-The-Shelf) products for military purposes and is evaluating several different commercially available smartphones and tablets, properly hardened and secured. The final goal is to have four main devices, plus a couple of infrastructure support services. Meanwhile, trying to anticipate the NSA certification process, U.S. Marines are willing to verify the benefits of a military use of smartphones and consequently issued a Request For Information for trusted handheld platforms.

In both cases, the new technologies (smartphones and tablets) are preferred since they are able to provide, in small size and weight, the capability to rapidly access information in different domains (e.g., internet, intranet, secret), geolocation capabilities which are useful in situation awareness contexts, and , last but not least, the capability to connect with different media (eg, personal area network [PAN], wireless local area network [LAN], wide area network [WAN]).

Nevertheless, in a certain manner, the two approaches, albeit aiming to the same objective, are slightly different. NSA is evaluating the possibility to harden COTS in order to make them suitable for a military use, but since this process of hardening, certification and accreditation may take up to a couple of years, which is typically the life cycle of a commercial smartphone or tablet (it sounds quite optimistic since one year is an eternity for this kind of devices), the RFI issued by the Marines Corps is soliciting for system architectures and business partnerships that facilitate low-cost and high-assurance handhelds, where high-assurance means at least meeting the common criteria for evaluated assurance level (EAL) of 5+ or above. From this point of view the Marines’ approach seems closer to (and hence follows) the approach faced by the U.S. Army which is already testing iPhones, Android devices and tablets for us in war (a total of 85 apps, whose development took about $4.2 million, we could nearly speak about a Military iTunes or Military Android Market!).

But the adoption of consumer technologies does not stop here and will probably soon involve also the use of technologies closely resembling the Cloud. As a matter of fact, the NSA plans to develop in the near future a secure mobile capability, referred to as the “Mobile Virtual Network Operator,”, which will be be able to establish a way to provide sensitive content to the military and intelligence “in a way that roughly emulates what Amazon does with Kindle”, as stated by said Debora Plunkett, director of the NSA’s information assurance directorate, speaking at the Gartner Security and Risk Management Summit 2011 (but the NSA will not be the first to pilot this kind of technology since the NATO is already adopting Cloud Computing).

Probably this is only one side of the coin, I’m willing to bet that the consumerization of warfare will soon “infect” armies belonging to different countries and consequently the next step will be the development of weapons (read mobile military malware) targeted to damage the normal behavior of the military smartphones and tablets. On the other hand the Pentagon has developed a list of cyber-weapons, including malware, that can sabotage an adversary’s critical networks, so it is likely that these kind of weapons will soon affect mobile devices…

Some Random Thoughts On Location Tracking

April 27, 2011 1 comment

The Apple and the Android (almost) never agree in anything, but the issue of the Location Tracking has done the miracle and if there is one only point that Cupertino and Mountain View have in common, it is just the bad habit to track user’s position without his/her knowledge.

After the well known issue of iPhone hidden (so to say) location tracking, Wired was able to discover why Apple devices collect these kind od data, unleashing 13-page letter sent by Apple’s general counsel Bruce Sewell in July 2010, explaining its location-data-collection techniques. The letter was written in response to a request from Congressmen Joe Barton and Edward Markey asking for Apple to disclose such practices (Incidentally, Markey authored the “Do Not Track” bill to stop online companies from tracking children).

Although no comment so far has arrived from Apple, I was disappointed in discovering, from a Cisco Blog Post, dealing with the same argument, that a similar bad habit collection has been detected for Google’s Android (at least the Android needs the root permission to grab the data).

In both cases the alleged main purpose of this data collection is to provide better location services. Instead my feeling is that the main benefit in this situation is not for the user, but for the marketing and/or advertising agencies which could come in possession of the data.

Interesting to notice the iPhone 3GS Software License Agreement states that:

By using any location-based services on your iPhone, you agree and consent to Apple’s and its partners’ licensees’ transmission, collection, maintenance, processing and use of your location data to provide such products and services.

Moreover I did a similar research in the Android Privacy Policy and discovered that:

Location data – Google offers location-enabled services, such as Google Maps and Latitude. If you use those services, Google may receive information about your actual location (such as GPS signals sent by a mobile device) or information that can be used to approximate a location (such as a cell ID).

Until now, nothing special, except the fact that Latitude asks for the user’s consent to share the data with the other, which, if I am not wrong, does not occurr for Google Maps. But the interesting point come a some lines below:

In addition to the above, we may use the information we collect to:

  • Provide, maintain, protect, and improve our services (including advertising services) and develop new services; and
  • Protect the rights or property of Google or our users.

And in this case no explicit consent is provided (even if it is indicated in the privacy policy that one user should read. For sure who loses is the user’s privacy (but we should be used to this), and most of all user’s security, since in both cases it is not so hard to dig the data from a stolen devices, giving the impression that main concern of engineers was more to make the data available “to improve services” rather then to store them in a secure manner.

Meanwhile Minnesota Senator Al Franken and the attorney general of Illinois are separately pressing Apple and Google to provide more information about the location data they collect about their end users…

Grab Your Data? There’s An App For That!

April 20, 2011 1 comment

The news of the day is undoubtedly the discovery that Apple devices are a bit ‘too nosy’ and regularly record the position of the device into a hidden (!!) unencrypted and unprotected file.

The unwelcome and serendipitous discovery, which was announced today at Where 2.0, has been performed by two researchers, Alasdair Allan and Pete Warden, while they were working on a project concerning visualization of Mobile Data. It looks like this unrequested feature has been introduced since the arrival of iOS 4.0 and allows the locations and their relative time stamps to be written on an easily accessible file on the device and, even worse, backed up on every PC the device has been synchronized with.

Even if the purpose of the file is unknown (at least so far), and would be appropriate to wait a reply from Apple (if any) before coming to any conclusion, this event, once again, brings to the fore privacy issues for mobile devices, strictly related to the security model for these devices, and, more in general, to the cultural approach and revolution users must face (and get used to) when dealing with mobile technologies.

For sure the main issue here is the lack of respect by Cupertino towards the users (customers?). We know that this is not the first time that a mobile applications attracts criticism for the use of private data (think for instance to the affair of Google Latitude). In the case of Apple Equipment (differently from the creature of Google) the user may not explicitly approve the sharing (would be better to say the tracking since there is no evidence of sharing so far) of his data. But even if we do not consider the ethic point of view, from a security perspective the event has a devastating impact: if the file containing the data may be easily accessed, this means that, in case of theft, could be quite easy, for a malicious user, to grab the data and reconstruct the habits of the users. If we think, for instance, to industrial espionage, this occurence has a dramatic consequence enhanced by the evidence that this kind of devices are often used by CxOs. (Who are the most targeted by the risks of consumerization of IT, of which this is yet another example).

Moreover, in most circumstances I discussed the risks of geolocation (and its correlation with users’ habits) and the importance that this data could have if massively stolen (for instance by mean of a Mobile Botnet) by Cybercrooks and conveyed to a C&C Server. In a similar scenario bad guys capable of stealing such a similar amount of data would have no difficulty at all to organize an auction “to the death” between hungry marketing agencies, which would pay gold to put their hand on them. I must admit that the thought that these “bad boys” could be just the manufacturers of my iPhone (luckily I own an Android) does not make me feel very comfortable. This situation is also paradoxical: many security vendors offer privacy advisors for (other) mobile platforms, but the evidence that one user should defend his privacy from the manufacturer itself sounds absurd and frustrating. Of course I continue to repeat that it is better to wait for an Apple official reply, but, honestly speaking the fact that these data are only available for devices provided with a cellular plan, sounds very strange.

Meanwhile, if you want to know more and enjoy (I hope so) to verify where have you been since you bought your brand new iToy, you may have a really interesting look at this link where the authors of the discovery posted an app to unleash the file and graphically map the positions.

Last but not least, there is no evidece (so far), of a similar “Feature” on the Droids.

On the other hand, these are tough times for the privacy of smartphones owners. As a matter of fact, quite curiously, today another, apparently unrelated, piece of news coming from the opposite site of the Ocean caught my attention. It concerns Michigan State Police, which has been using data extraction tools to collect information from the cell phones of motorists detained for minor traffic infractions. This has been possible by mean of Cellebrite, a mobile Forensics Tool capable to perform:

“Complete extraction of existing, hidden, and deleted phone data, including call history, text messages, contacts, images, and geotags. The Physical Analyzer allows visualization of both existing and deleted locations on Google Earth. In addition, location information from GPS devices and image geotags can be mapped on Google Maps,”

Even if the latter issue raises the question concerning to what extent the law can go when facing privacy of the citizens, the two news have in common the (mis)use of mobile data and I could not help but thinking that mobile data are continuously under attack and users should consequently consider carefully the usage of their devices (this is the reason why I used the term of cultural revolution).

Who knows, maybe Michigan State Police hoped to make further fines for speeding after detaining the motorists by tracking GPS position and timestamps. Probably if they had known the existence of the above mentioned feature of iOS, they would have avoided to buy the software and grab directly the data… At least for iOS 4 users…

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