Apple Rushes Out Patch for New iOS Zero-Day Flaws

An attack against a human rights advocate ends up exposing actions of the NSO Group and a new mobile attack.

iOS flaws

Apple today issued a critical update to iOS, version 9.3.5, which patches three zero-day exploits that were first discovered in the wild in an attack against human rights advocate Ahmed Mansoor.

Apple patched CVE-2016-4655, a kernel memory disclosure issue with the iOS kernel; CVE-2016-4656, a memory corruption vulnerability in the iOS kernel; and CVE-2016-4657, a memory corruption issue in the WebKit browser rendering engine. Apple credits security research organization Citizen Lab and security firm Lookout with reporting the issue.

Citizen Lab, a research group within the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto, has a history of helping to identify attacks against human rights advocates. Mansoor, who is based in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), contacted Citizen Lab after receiving a pair of messages he thought were suspicious.

"On August 10 and 11, 2016, Mansoor received SMS text messages on his iPhone promising 'new secrets' about detainees tortured in UAE jails if he clicked on an included link," Citizen Lab wrote in a report. "Instead of clicking, Mansoor sent the messages to Citizen Lab researchers. We recognized the links as belonging to an exploit infrastructure connected to NSO Group, an Israel-based 'cyber war' company that sells Pegasus, a government-exclusive 'lawful intercept' spyware product. "

Citizen Lab then collaborated with Lookout to investigate the actual attack, which is how the three zero-day flaws in iOS were unraveled. The three vulnerabilities combine to enable an exploit chain that Citizen Lab is now calling Trident. The Trident attack would have enabled the attackers to spy on Mansoor's phone and gain access to the device's camera and microphone as well as its location.

"The high cost of iPhone zero-days, the apparent use of NSO Group's government-exclusive Pegasus product, and prior known targeting of Mansoor by the UAE government provide indicators that point to the UAE government as the likely operator behind the targeting," Citizen Lab stated.

Lookout has published a comprehensive technical analysis of the Pegasus spyware package that the NSO Group sells, which includes the Trident vulnerabilities.

"The espionage software contains malicious code, processes, and apps that are used to spy, collect data, and report back what the user does on the device," Lookout's analysis explains.

The new iOS flaws come at a particularly interesting time, as Apple announced a bug bounty program at the Black Hat USA conference on Aug. 4. Third-party firms including Zerodium and Exodus Intelligence also offer bounties for iOS, with Zerodium reportedly paying out $1 million for an iOS zero-day exploit. The FBI reportedly paid $1.3 million for help from a third-party security firm in unlocking an iPhone earlier this year.

Given the high value of iOS vulnerabilities, Lookout believes the Trident attack and use of Pegasus is very targeted.

"We believe this kind of software is very targeted, meaning the purchaser is likely to be both well-funded and specifically motivated," Mike Murray, vice president of Security Research & Response at Lookout, wrote. "The going price for Pegasus was roughly $8 million for 300 licenses, so it's not likely to be used against an average mobile device user, only targets that can be considered of high value."

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at eWEEK and Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist.

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner is an Internet consultant, strategist, and contributor to several leading IT business web sites.