The Implications of Hardware Attacks on Phones

A story has been circulating amongst the various Apple blogs regarding an iOS hardware exploit:

Careful what you put between your iPhone and a power outlet: That helpful stranger’s charger may be injecting your device with more than mere electrons.

At the upcoming Black Hat security conference in late July, three researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology plan to show off a proof-of-concept charger that they say can be used to invisibly install malware on a device running the latest version of Apple’s iOS.

Though the researchers aren’t yet sharing the details of their work, a description of their talk posted to the conference website describes the results of the experiment as “alarming. Despite the plethora of defense mechanisms in iOS, we successfully injected arbitrary software into current-generation Apple devices running the latest operating system (OS) software,” their talk summary reads. “All users are affected, as our approach requires neither a jailbroken device nor user interaction.”

Surprisingly most of the Apple blogs I’ve read have written this exploit off as a minor issue. I’m not sure if the people writing off this exploit are just zealous Apple fans who refuse to acknowledge any flaw in their favorite company’s products or if they lack imagination but the severity of this flaw, if it works as advertised, shouldn’t be understated.

While the risk of a hacker loading malicious software onto your phone through a physical cable are relatively low the risk of the state doing the same is relatively high. Various police departments have been advertising that they possess devices that can download data off of cell phones. In practice such a device can be used to obtain the contents of a person’s phone upon detainment but that’s about it. But Combining that concept with sneak and peek warrants and now you have an interesting issue. During the execution of a sneak and peek warrant law enforcement officers can enter your home, search it, and not inform you that they’ve performed the deed. It wouldn’t take much to use a hardware device to load surveillance software onto your mobile devices during one of these searches. Once that’s done it’s possible that the phone could be used as a remote monitoring system to capture conversations by turning on the microphone, images of the area you’re in by activating the camera(s), and everything you type via key logging software.

I still question whether this exploit works with every iOS configuration. The exploit could be reliant on either the 30-pin or Lightening connector, it may not operate at all if the device’s contents are encrypted, etc. But the exploit could be effective enough for state agents to load surveillance software onto most iOS devices, which makes it a notable threat that shouldn’t be written off as a minor issue.

On the less frightening side of things it will be interesting to see what the jailbreaking community does with this exploit. It’s possible that the exploit could offer an easy way for iOS users to jailbreak their devices. If that is the case I also expect Apple to fix the problem quickly since they’ve done a remarkable job at fixing holes used by the jailbreaking community.