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Massive iPhone Hack Targets Uyghurs

China is being blamed for a massive surveillance operation that targeted Uyghur Muslims. This story broke in waves, the first wave being about the iPhone.

Earlier this year, Google’s Project Zero found a series of websites that have been using zero-day vulnerabilities to indiscriminately install malware on iPhones that would visit the site. (The vulnerabilities were patched in iOS 12.1.4, released on February 7.)

Earlier this year Google’s Threat Analysis Group (TAG) discovered a small collection of hacked websites. The hacked sites were being used in indiscriminate watering hole attacks against their visitors, using iPhone 0-day.

There was no target discrimination; simply visiting the hacked site was enough for the exploit server to attack your device, and if it was successful, install a monitoring implant. We estimate that these sites receive thousands of visitors per week.

TAG was able to collect five separate, complete and unique iPhone exploit chains, covering almost every version from iOS 10 through to the latest version of iOS 12. This indicated a group making a sustained effort to hack the users of iPhones in certain communities over a period of at least two years.

Four more news stories.

This upends pretty much everything we know about iPhone hacking. We believed that it was hard. We believed that effective zero-day exploits cost $2M or $3M, and were used sparingly by governments only against high-value targets. We believed that if an exploit was used too frequently, it would be quickly discovered and patched.

None of that is true here. This operation used fourteen zero-days exploits. It used them indiscriminately. And it remained undetected for two years. (I waited before posting this because I wanted to see if someone would rebut this story, or explain it somehow.)

Google’s announcement left out of details, like the URLs of the sites delivering the malware. That omission meant that we had no idea who was behind the attack, although the speculation was that it was a nation-state.

Subsequent reporting added that malware against Android phones and the Windows operating system were also delivered by those websites. And then that the websites were targeted at Uyghurs. Which leads us all to blame China.

So now this is a story of a large, expensive, indiscriminate, Chinese-run surveillance operation against an ethnic minority in their country. And the politics will overshadow the tech. But the tech is still really impressive.

EDITED TO ADD: New data on the value of smartphone exploits:

According to the company, starting today, a zero-click (no user interaction) exploit chain for Android can get hackers and security researchers up to $2.5 million in rewards. A similar exploit chain impacting iOS is worth only $2 million.

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Bypassing Apple FaceID’s Liveness Detection Feature

Apple’s FaceID has a liveness detection feature, which prevents someone from unlocking a victim’s phone by putting it in front of his face while he’s sleeping. That feature has been hacked:

Researchers on Wednesday during Black Hat USA 2019 demonstrated an attack that allowed them to bypass a victim’s FaceID and log into their phone simply by putting a pair of modified glasses on their face. By merely placing tape carefully over the lenses of a pair glasses and placing them on the victim’s face the researchers demonstrated how they could bypass Apple’s FaceID in a specific scenario. The attack itself is difficult, given the bad actor would need to figure out how to put the glasses on an unconscious victim without waking them up.

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iPhone Apps Surreptitiously Communicated with Unknown Servers

Long news article (alternate source) on iPhone privacy, specifically the enormous amount of data your apps are collecting without your knowledge. A lot of this happens in the middle of the night, when you’re probably not otherwise using your phone:

IPhone apps I discovered tracking me by passing information to third parties ­ just while I was asleep ­ include Microsoft OneDrive, Intuit’s Mint, Nike, Spotify, The Washington Post and IBM’s the Weather Channel. One app, the crime-alert service Citizen, shared personally identifiable information in violation of its published privacy policy.

And your iPhone doesn’t only feed data trackers while you sleep. In a single week, I encountered over 5,400 trackers, mostly in apps, not including the incessant Yelp traffic.

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How Apple’s “Find My” Feature Works

Matthew Green intelligently speculates about how Apple’s new “Find My” feature works.

If you haven’t already been inspired by the description above, let me phrase the question you ought to be asking: how is this system going to avoid being a massive privacy nightmare?

Let me count the concerns:

  • If your device is constantly emitting a BLE signal that uniquely identifies it, the whole world is going to have (yet another) way to track you. Marketers already use WiFi and Bluetooth MAC addresses to do this: Find My could create yet another tracking channel.

  • It also exposes the phones who are doing the tracking. These people are now going to be sending their current location to Apple (which they may or may not already be doing). Now they’ll also be potentially sharing this information with strangers who “lose” their devices. That could go badly.

  • Scammers might also run active attacks in which they fake the location of your device. While this seems unlikely, people will always surprise you.

The good news is that Apple claims that their system actually does provide strong privacy, and that it accomplishes this using clever cryptography. But as is typical, they’ve declined to give out the details how they’re going to do it. Andy Greenberg talked me through an incomplete technical description that Apple provided to Wired, so that provides many hints. Unfortunately, what Apple provided still leaves huge gaps. It’s into those gaps that I’m going to fill in my best guess for what Apple is actually doing.

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Fingerprinting iPhones

This clever attack allows someone to uniquely identify a phone when you visit a website, based on data from the accelerometer, gyroscope, and magnetometer sensors.

We have developed a new type of fingerprinting attack, the calibration fingerprinting attack. Our attack uses data gathered from the accelerometer, gyroscope and magnetometer sensors found in smartphones to construct a globally unique fingerprint. Overall, our attack has the following advantages:

  • The attack can be launched by any website you visit or any app you use on a vulnerable device without requiring any explicit confirmation or consent from you.
  • The attack takes less than one second to generate a fingerprint.
  • The attack can generate a globally unique fingerprint for iOS devices.
  • The calibration fingerprint never changes, even after a factory reset.
  • The attack provides an effective means to track you as you browse across the web and move between apps on your phone.

* Following our disclosure, Apple has patched this vulnerability in iOS 12.2.

Research paper.

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iPhone FaceTime Vulnerability

This is kind of a crazy iPhone vulnerability: it’s possible to call someone on FaceTime and listen on their microphone — and see from their camera — before they accept the call.

This is definitely an embarrassment, and Apple was right to disable Group FaceTime until it’s fixed. But it’s hard to imagine how an adversary can operationalize this in any useful way.

New York governor Andrew M. Cuomo wrote: “The FaceTime bug is an egregious breach of privacy that puts New Yorkers at risk.” Kinda, I guess.

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iOS 12.1 Vulnerability

This is really just to point out that computer security is really hard:

Almost as soon as Apple released iOS 12.1 on Tuesday, a Spanish security researcher discovered a bug that exploits group Facetime calls to give anyone access to an iPhone users’ contact information with no need for a passcode.

[…]

A bad actor would need physical access to the phone that they are targeting and has a few options for viewing the victim’s contact information. They would need to either call the phone from another iPhone or have the phone call itself. Once the call connects they would need to:

  • Select the Facetime icon
  • Select “Add Person”
  • Select the plus icon
  • Scroll through the contacts and use 3D touch on a name to view all contact information that’s stored.

Making the phone call itself without entering a passcode can be accomplished by either telling Siri the phone number or, if they don’t know the number, they can say “call my phone.” We tested this with both the owners’ voice and a strangers voice, in both cases, Siri initiated the call.

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Defeating the iPhone Restricted Mode

Recently, Apple introduced restricted mode to protect iPhones from attacks by companies like Cellebrite and Greyshift, which allow attackers to recover information from a phone without the password or fingerprint. Elcomsoft just announced that it can easily bypass it.

There is an important lesson in this: security is hard. Apple Computer has one of the best security teams on the planet. This feature was not tossed out in a day; it was designed and implemented with a lot of thought and care. If this team could make a mistake like this, imagine how bad a security feature is when implemented by a team without this kind of expertise.

This is the reason actual cryptographers and security engineers are very skeptical when a random company announces that their product is “secure.” We know that they don’t have the requisite security expertise to design and implement security properly. We know they didn’t take the time and care. We know that their engineers think they understand security, and designed to a level that they couldn’t break.

Getting security right is hard for the best teams on the world. It’s impossible for average teams.

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