iPhone Security Hellhole?

Opinion: First, the iPhone root password was broken. OK, it happens. But now it seems that all applications run on the iPhone as root. Can you say biggest security blunder of the 21st century to date?

"To err is human, but to really screw up requires the root password," is an old Unix saying. Thats because as the root, the super-user, of a Unix, Linux or Mac OS system, theres nothing you cant do. This includes an almost endless array or ways to really foul up your computer. Or, as appears to be the case with the iPhone, to let almost anyone abuse or brick your phone.

First, a mere three days after the iPhone appeared, the default root password was cracked. Thats bad, but since there didnt seem to be any way to input the password because the iPhone doesnt have a conventional login system, it wasnt of much interest except to dedicated crackers. What good is a key, after all, if theres no keyhole to put it in?

Well, actually, it does a lot of good once youve pried open the iPhones software with AppTapp installer. This is an installer program that lets hackers download and install other programs into an iPhone over the EDGE network. HDM, of the Metasploit Project, a hacking group, used this to quickly crack the iPhone and install OpenSSH and a VT-100 terminal.

OpenSSH is the Swiss-army knife tool of Unix/Linux computer-to-computer connectivity. With it, you can log in to remote systems—or iPhones—and send or receive files. VT-100 is a standard terminal program that enables you to enter commands to OpenSSH and other programs on an iPhone that will take character-based commands.

HDM added that, "Every process runs as root. MobileSafari, MobileMail, even the Calculator, all run with full root privileges. Any security flaw in any iPhone application can lead to a complete system compromise. A rootkit takes on a whole new meaning when the attacker has access to the camera, microphone, contact list and phone hardware. Couple this with always-on Internet access over EDGE and you have a perfect spying device."


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He then goes on to explain, in some detail, how hes well on his way to being able to use his hacked iPhone to crack into other iPhones. Or, as he puts it, "The only step left is to find the bugs and write the exploits :-)"

Now pay attention—this is the important part. From what he describes, it appears that it may be possible to break into iPhones from a properly hacked iPhone. You dont need someone to go to a Web site to pick up malware or to get your hands on someone elses phone. No, it looks like you may be able to crack open someones phone in the next room, the next house over or, for that matter, the next town over. Youll be able to do it all over the EDGE network.

Im not much of a hacker or a security guru, but I do know something about both and I know a lot about how Unix-based systems, such as Macs and the iPhone, handle security. If he is indeed correct, and everything runs as root then its only a matter of when, not if, crackers will be able to do anything they want with your iPhone.

I mean anything. While turning on your camera remotely to see what youre doing will be a bit complicated, reading your e-mails, listening in to your calls and grabbing every file on your iPhone will be trivial. It could also be used to install software on your iPhone to report on what youre doing even when the cracker isnt maintaining an active connection to your phone. Oh, and of course, turning your iPhone into a brick will be the easiest thing of all.

This is unbelievable. One of the first things any Unix administrator, never mind programmer, learns to do is to never, ever run as root unless you absolutely must do it. I mean, this is a system where a one-line command in a terminal window, the infamous:

rm -rf

will destroy every last lousy file in a file directory. In real life, this often means if you run it as root, youll blast everything off your hard drive. With the right, or should I say, wrong, LVM (logical volume manager) settings, you can even burn out network file servers, NAS (Network Attached Storages), heck, entire SANs (Storage Area Networks).

When a computer runs everything as root, that means if you can break into any one program, you can also gain complete and total access to that system. This is stupid. No, this is beyond stupid. If the iPhone really does run everything as root, this goes all the way out to criminally delinquent.

The one "bright" spot is that with the latest iPhone firmware update 1.1.1, you cant currently install AppTapp. The bad news is that hackers can downgrade iPhone to a version that will accept AppTapp. That, in turn, means you can install the rest of the software needed to explore how to raid other iPhones. Unless that update also got rid of that fundamental problem of running everything as root, even an up-to-date iPhone will still be wide open to attack.

It kills me to say this, but even Microsoft, which still doesnt know how to do security, wouldnt have made a blunder as big as this one. If this root problem does exist, and it sure looks like it from what I can tell, Apple has to fix it right now. Its a race between the crackers and Apple, and it looks to me like the crackers are way ahead at this point.


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