9/3/2014
12:35 PM
Dave Kearns
Dave Kearns
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Celeb Hack: Is Apple Telling All It Knows?

Did Apple have a system-wide data breach? No. Was it complicit through an appalling security lapse by not defending against brute force attacks? You're darn tootin'!



Recently the entire social network world, the general print media, entertainment news TV, and, really, almost every outlet that feels it is in the news business has been awash in articles about the leak of nude and compromising photographs of a large group of celebrities. Besides lots of conversation about the propriety of a) taking nude pictures and b) storing nude pictures in the cloud, there’s been a good deal of idle speculation as to how the pictures became available.

Was there one hacker? Multiple hackers? Was phishing involved? Did an entire website get hijacked?

Well, one thing we can rest assured of: It wasn’t Apple’s fault. And we know that because they told us so. According to the Apple statement, “None of the cases we have investigated has resulted from any breach in any of Apple’s systems including iCloud® or Find my iPhone. We are continuing to work with law enforcement to help identify the criminals involved.”

Well, that’s reassuring.

Wait, though: Weren’t the victims' accounts on Apple’s servers? So how did someone not authorized to use those accounts get access to them? Apple? Anything to add here? Apple? It gets really quiet at this point.

Many have suggested that phishing might have been involved. After all, many tech-savvy folk have fallen victim to this sort of attack; a good phishing attempt might get someone to reveal his or her password. Others suggest that -- since people do tend to reuse account names and passwords -- the authentication credentials could have been buried in the billions of accounts amassed by Russian hackers in last month’s big story. But the theory I find most believable is one put forward by a group of white-hat hackers on Github, called “iBrute.” What they discovered was that Apple’s “Find My iPhone” app had no protection against a brute force password attack.

In a brute force attack, hundreds and thousands of passwords are tried to gain access to an account until one succeeds. Protecting against this is simple: Just limit the number of incorrect attempts and lockout the account (either temporarily -- 30 minutes to a couple of hours -- or permanently until the person contacts the help desk). Apple chose not to limit incorrect attempts in any way. This behavior has since been corrected, but the damage had already been done.

To use this type of attack, the hacker would need to know the account name. In this case it would be an email address. So, you know a celebrity’s name, and if she has an iPhone she probably uses a me.com email address. You’ve got all the time in the world to launch a brute force attack against possible account names, a fairly easy proposition. Take Jennifer Lawrence, the celebrity most mentioned in the stories about the hack. Her address could be: [email protected], [email protected], [email protected], etc. A handful of addresses using a brute force attack and -- most likely -- you’re accessing the account in fewer than 24 hours.

Get into the account and, not only can you access the photo gallery, but you’ve got access to her address book -- the email account names of all of her celebrity buddies. Crack those accounts, and you’ve got access to even more through your brute force hack. One lone hacker, in less than a week, could have amassed all of the pictures that have been leaked.

Did Apple have a system-wide data breach? No, it didn’t, as it was so quick to point out. Was Apple complicit in the breach through an appalling lack in security by not instituting a defense against brute force attacks? You’re darn tootin’. And, while it's corrected that error in judgment, the horse is already out of the barn.

Portable electronic devices and the apps they contain can make our lives easier -- and more fun. But don’t overlook the security and privacy concerns that people have about them. You wouldn’t live in a house without locks on the doors, would you? Don’t use apps that are the electronic equivalent. And Apple? Step up, man up, and admit you might have had a part in the whole fiasco. It’s the right thing to do.

Dave Kearns is a senior analyst for Kuppinger-Cole, Europe's leading analyst company for identity-focused information security and networking. His columns and books have provided a thorough grounding in the basic philosophies of directory technology, networking, and identity ... View Full Bio
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