Apple mobile devices based on the iOS platform, such as iPhones and iPads, implement multiple protection mechanisms and platform restrictions to fulfill several security requirements and support Apple's lucrative business model.
In early 2012 I found a vulnerability that allows the manipulation of a sensitive core default iOS capability, the iOS device update process. The iOS update process is protected by System Software Authorization, which prevents downgrading iOS devices to previous versions of this operating system. This measure can be partially circumvented by freezing the mobile device to its current iOS version.
An attacker in a Man-in-the-Middle (MitM) position (e.g. connected to the same public Wi-Fi hotspot as the victim, or by impersonating one of the legitimate Wi-Fi networks the iOS device wants to connect to) can intercept the iOS update check traffic of a target device. Through the modification of HTTP requests and/or responses, specifically some dates in the headers, as well as implementing replay attacks, can force the target device to think its current version is the latest iOS version available.
The vulnerability can be used in carefully planned targeted attacks to temporarily or permanently freeze the current version of an iOS device. Before notifying the vulnerability to Apple (on February 6, 2014), the iOS version of Apple's devices could be permanently frozen to any time in the future, effectively setting its iOS version forever. In its current state, the version of iOS 7 devices can be permanently frozen up to the next update, while previous iOS versions still remain completely vulnerable. The temporary attacks still apply to all affected iOS versions.
Once the iOS version has been frozen, this attack facilitates the exploitation of other vulnerabilities potentially targeting a specific version of this mobile platform, such as the 197 vulnerabilities fixed in iOS 6.0, or the 80 vulnerabilities fixed in iOS 7.0 (plus all the others fixed between major iOS versions). It is scary to think how many potential victims could have been attacked by this vulnerability during the last two and a half years, allowing both massive device manipulation attacks as well as stealthier and targeted attacks (that can also be reverted back silently).
The design flaw affects the multiple Apple mobile devices (iPhone, iPad, iPad mini, iPod Touch..) since iOS version 5 up to the latest iOS 7 version (7.1.1). In iOS 5, Apple introduced new wireless capabilities to perform specific operations Over the Air (OTA), actions that previously required the usage of USB cables, such as iCloud backups, iTunes data synchronization and backups over Wi-Fi, or iOS software updates. This behavior introduced the aforementioned vulnerability, which can be exploited in iOS 5, 6 & 7 by applying core principles from movies like Back to the Future, Star Wars or Matrix ;)
Although the flaw was discovered in early 2012, it has remained private while researching and evaluating first hand the current immature and controverted vulnerability disclosure models, the real interests of modern vulnerability markets and brokers, as well as other vulnerability discovery implications, topics that have also been discussed during my talks.
I disclosed this vulnerability this year both at the 5th anniversary of the RootedCON 2014 conference (Madrid, Spain, March 2014) and at the 1st anniversary of the "new" Area 41 conference (Zurich, Switzerland, June 2014). More information about the vulnerability is available on both slide decks, as well as in the associated videos, with exploitation demos. They include the overall impact of the vulnerability, all the associated technical details surrounding System Software Authorization and how the iOS update process works, the vulnerability behavior in iOS 5, 6 and 7, and its history, limitations, and complementary tools used during the research process, such as iCamasu (new 0.42 version released):
- "iOS: Back To The Future". RootedCON 2014. March 2014. (Presentation in English & Video in Spanish).
- "iOS: Back To The Future". Area 41. June 2014. (Presentation & Video in English).
NOTE: The video is currently available only in Spanish from RootedCON. The English version of the video (and presentation) from Area41 will be released in a few weeks. Follow @dinosec for updates.
Unfortunately, due to the fact the vulnerability has not been completely addressed by Apple yet, the iProxy tool and the archive of previous iOS software update plist files mentioned in the talks are not going to be publicly released. These two allow weaponizing its exploitation in real-world scenarios. However, it is crucial for organizations at this point to know about this vulnerability in order to take proactive countermeasures, such as verifying their managed iOS devices are running the latest, or expected, iOS version via their MDM solution.
My hope is that the vulnerability will be fixed in iOS 8 later this fall, but still several unanswered questions remain open: Why Apple didn't use HTTPS (and certificate pinning) for the iOS update check process? Was it due to performance reasons? Even in this case, it is crucial to differentiate between the update check process (to verify if there is a new version available) and getting the update contents, that is, the update process itself (to download and install the new available version).
We definitely do not learn from the past and repeat the same mistakes, again and again, regarding how to use technology in a secure way... Perhaps due to its increasing complexity or perhaps, wait... intentionally... Once again, the debate opens the door to reflect on the current technologies and the inherent weaknesses of our modern information society, sophisticated but vulnerable.