Blackberry Carries Security Bulls-Eye

The threat illustrates issues with always-on wireless devices.

Companies that have not appropriately applied Research In Motions security protections for its BlackBerry communications system are vulnerable to outside attacks based on malware code released in mid-August by researchers. The threat illustrates a wider issue with always-on wireless applications, analysts said.

Jesse DAguanno, director of professional services and research at consultancy Praetorian Global, in Placerville, Calif., published his BlackBerry Attack Toolkit on Aug. 16 after first showing off the software at the DefCon reverse-engineering convention held in Las Vegas earlier in August.

While companies that have aggressively exercised RIMs security features for its back-end BlackBerry servers should be immune to attacks based on the code, DAguanno said, many users of the ubiquitous wireless communication devices remain vulnerable.

"By releasing the code, were trying to make people understand the potential risks; theres a need to realign peoples thinking as far as portable device security, along with making administrators realize they cant just put something like this on a network without understanding the security implications first," he said.

In his presentation at DefCon, the re--searcher highlighted the ability of the hacking program, dubbed BBProxy, to be installed on a BlackBerry device or sent as an e-mail attachment to an unsuspecting user.

If levied against ill-prepared BlackBerry servers, the attack opens a covert communications channel with the RIM infrastructure by bypassing gateway security controls installed between the hacker and the inside of the victims network, DAguanno said.

Because the communications channel between the BlackBerry server and any connected handheld devices is encrypted and cannot be scoured by most network intrusion detection tools, unsuspecting administrators could overlook the exploit, which could be used to steal private information or deliver other forms of malware.

DAguanno said that other wireless systems, specifically applications that maintain constant connectivity between handhelds and back-end servers, are likely open to similar attacks. However, he said 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 a 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, DAguanno said.

Despite the fact that RIM appears to have been singled out based primarily on its rapidly growing customer base, rather than any glaring hole in its products, executives at the Waterloo, Ontario, 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.

Robertson 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 users.

Robertson said the problem raised by the researchers work is similar to network security issues posed by third-party applications used on other types of devices. The use of VPNs and other tools have largely quieted the issue in regard 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 users with a false sense of security regarding how the protections could also help malware writers carry out their attacks.