Other Wireless Systems

By Matt Hines  |  Posted 2006-08-17 Print this article Print

DAguanno concedes that other wireless systems, specifically applications that maintain constant connectivity between handhelds and back-end servers, are likely open to similar attacks. However, he chose to highlight the RIM situation since so many administrators appear to be adopting the companys products while ignoring BlackBerrys security features.

"The actual concept for the attack isnt specific to BlackBerry; BBproxy demonstrates how any solution that provides push technologies where a server component creates persistent tunnel between a handheld and the network creates the potential for this type of attack," said DAguanno.

Yet, the researcher leveled criticism at RIM at the same time, pointing out that the company does not make its strictest security settings a default, allowing users to download the types of unverified third-party applications that could be used to deliver a real exploit. The connected nature of BlackBerry devices makes it such that the vendor should be more forceful in pushing tighter security settings, he said.

Despite the fact that Waterloo, Ontario-based RIM appears to have been singled out based primarily on its rapidly growing customer base, versus any glaring hole in its products, executives at the company said they do not feel it was unfair of DAguanno to publish the threat code or highlight the perceived security shortcomings.

All parties agree that BBproxy can be rendered relatively harmless by isolating BlackBerry servers on their own DMZ while limiting the types of network connections allowed to be made to the devices.

At the same time, RIM contends that such malware exploits are possible on nearly any mobile device, including smart phones and laptop computers. The company also flatly denied that the threat could be passed through an e-mail attachment to an unsuspecting user, as BlackBerry Enterprise Server does not allow people to download attachments to the device.

Ian Robertson, head of RIMs Security, Research & Response business unit, said the company is committed to informing its customers of what steps they should take to best protect their wireless systems. He said he also believes that most companies using RIMs technologies have put the proper security protections in place, which would typically escalate permissions to download unfamiliar third-party applications to administrators, rather than end users.

On the topic of whether or not RIM could beef up its default security settings for BlackBerry servers, he said the company prefers to leave the matter in customers hands.

"We give users the tools to tailor devices to suit their security tolerances, administrators have rich controls over applications in terms of what can be loaded and how they talk to the network, even in default," Robertson said. "We are continually focused on security and on working with the research community to ensure that we deliver secure solutions by offering rich controls and configuration guides."

In response to DAguannos code, the company is reminding customers to review two documents on its Web site that outline secure BlackBerry server settings.

Robertson said the problem raised by the researchers work runs parallel to similar issues of network security posed by third-party applications used on other types of devices. The use of VPNs (virtual private networks) and other tools have largely quieted the issue in regards to laptops, he said.

Other security analysts agreed with that observation, and said that the use of encryption in the BlackBerry infrastructure complicates the issue by making it harder for administrators to identify attempted attacks. While encryption is necessary to protect communications data, it often provides end users with a false sense of security regarding how the protections could also help malware writers carry out their attacks.

"The BlackBerry hack issue is part of a much larger problem as people have a tendency to believe that because a device uses encryption for data in transit across the Internet that it is secure," said Paul Henry, vice president of strategic accounts at appliance maker Secure Computing, which is based in San Jose, Calif.

"In reality, the data is only secure while the data is in transit and is typically vulnerable when the data is at the end point; in the case of BlackBerry, the current exploit could potentially allow a cyber-criminal to simply make use the encrypted communications channel to surf to the end point and potentially wreak havoc," Henry said. "The comfort level afforded by the encryption of the communications can cause the installation of the BlackBerry server to overlook common sense policy and architecture considerations."

Check out eWEEK.coms for the latest security news, reviews and analysis. And for insights on security coverage around the Web, take a look at eWEEK.com Security Center Editor Larry Seltzers Weblog.
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