Thursday, July 2, 2009

Serious SMS Vulnerability Discovered for the iPhone

Via -

Apple is working to fix an iPhone vulnerability that could allow an attacker to remotely install and run unsigned software code with root access to the phone.

The attack in question exploits a weakness in the way iPhones handle text messages received via SMS (Short Message Service), said security researcher Charlie Miller, during a presentation at the SyScan conference in Singapore on Thursday. He didn't provide a detailed description of the SMS vulnerability, citing an agreement with Apple.


The SMS vulnerability allows an attacker to run software code on the phone that is sent by SMS over a mobile operator's network. The malicious code could include commands to monitor the location of the phone using GPS, turn on the phone's microphone to eavesdrop on conversations, or make the phone join a distributed denial of service attack or a botnet, Miller said.

Apple is working to patch the vulnerability and expects to have a fix ready later this month, before Miller discusses the attack in greater detail during a planned presentation at the Black Hat USA conference in Las Vegas.


The iPhone also requires applications to run in a sandbox, a security feature that isolates them from other applications and limits their access to the phone's capabilities. But SMS offers a way for attackers to get greater access to the phone's capabilities, Miller said.

"SMS is a great vector to attack the iPhone," he said.

Most often used to send brief text messages between cell phones, SMS can also send binary code to an iPhone, which then processes the code without any user interaction. Each SMS message is limited to 140 bytes, but longer sequences can be sent to the phone as multiple messages that are automatically reassembled.

This feature allows larger programs to be delivered to a phone, Miller said.

In addition, vulnerabilities found in the iPhone's SMS function give an attacker root access to the handset, Miller said. That's not the case for the iPhone's other applications, such as its browser, where vulnerabilities only give an attacker access to the application's sandbox.


In related news, another couple of researchers plan to release an SMS auditing tool for the iPhone @ Blackhat as part of a talk titled "Attacking SMS".

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