Bad Security Week for Apple

By Larry Seltzer  |  Posted 2008-03-31 Print this article Print

Public embarrassment at a hacking contest and vulnerability disclosures for a new browser made for a discouraging week for Mac security folks.

It was one security embarrassment after another for Apple the week of March 24.

It began at the CanSecWest show, where the annual hacker contest challenged attendees to compromise a Vista system, a Ubuntu Linux system and a MacBook Air. The first day was reserved for preauthentication attacks and would have netted $20,000, but nobody took the prize.

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On the second day, attackers were allowed to use default-installed client applications. Within minutes of the opening of the second day, the Mac was hijacked by security researcher Charlie Miller, who won the machine and a $10,000 prize for his efforts. Miller attacked the brand new Safari 3.1 browser through a new vulnerability, the details of which he declined to provide. The Vista and Ubuntu boxes survived the day.

On March 28, the attack surface expanded to include popular third-party applications, which should make for easy pickings on both Ubuntu and Vista. The Vista box took much longer to go down than originally anticipated; it seems SP1 makes these exploits harder, perhaps because of NX support for heap memory, or perhaps the hackers simply didn't prepare on SP1. But in the end, it went down through a new Flash Player vulnerability, which the hacker describes as cross-platform. The Ubuntu machine was the only one left standing. Perhaps the attackers didn't have time to try the Flash Player on Linux.

One more point about CanSecWest that should be made: It's just possible that the market for vulnerabilities, especially for preauthentication vulnerabilities, has higher prices than the CanSecWest show. Why blow a great vulnerability for $20,000 when you can get $50,000 elsewhere?

Even so, Apple doesn't tend to do well at these hacker events. It has a history of getting embarrassed. And back in the day of the Month of Whatever Bugs, the Month of Apple Bugs was probably the best of them. Put a Mac up against a serious attack, and it drops like a stone.

In owning the Mac, it's likely that Miller used this recently revealed vulnerability in the Safari Webkit to exploit the machine, but nobody's talking. Safari is prone to a remote code-execution vulnerability because it fails to adequately handle regular expressions with large, nested repetition counts. Inaccurate compilation lengths are calculated, and an overflow results.

Larry Seltzer has been writing software for and English about computers ever since—,much to his own amazement—,he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1983.

He was one of the authors of NPL and NPL-R, fourth-generation languages for microcomputers by the now-defunct DeskTop Software Corporation. (Larry is sad to find absolutely no hits on any of these +products on Google.) His work at Desktop Software included programming the UCSD p-System, a virtual machine-based operating system with portable binaries that pre-dated Java by more than 10 years.

For several years, he wrote corporate software for Mathematica Policy Research (they're still in business!) and Chase Econometrics (not so lucky) before being forcibly thrown into the consulting market. He bummed around the Philadelphia consulting and contract-programming scenes for a year or two before taking a job at NSTL (National Software Testing Labs) developing product tests and managing contract testing for the computer industry, governments and publication.

In 1991 Larry moved to Massachusetts to become Technical Director of PC Week Labs (now eWeek Labs). He moved within Ziff Davis to New York in 1994 to run testing at Windows Sources. In 1995, he became Technical Director for Internet product testing at PC Magazine and stayed there till 1998.

Since then, he has been writing for numerous other publications, including Fortune Small Business, Windows 2000 Magazine (now Windows and .NET Magazine), ZDNet and Sam Whitmore's Media Survey.

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