For at least two years, a small collection of hacked websites has been attacking iPhones in a massive campaign affecting thousands of devices, researchers with Google Project Zero report.
These sites quietly infiltrated iPhones through indiscriminate "watering hole" attacks using previously unknown vulnerabilities, Project Zero's Ian Beer reports in a disclosure published late Thursday. He estimates affected websites receive thousands of weekly visitors, underscoring the severity of a campaign that upsets long-held views on the security of Apple products.
"There was no target discrimination; simply visiting the hacked website was enough for the exploit server to attack your device, and if it was successful, install a monitoring plant," Beer explains.
Google's Threat Analysis Group (TAG) found five exploit chains covering nearly every operating system release from iOS 10 to the latest version of iOS 12. These chains connected security flaws so attackers could bypass several layers of protection. In total, they exploited 14 vulnerabilities: seven affecting the Safari browser, five for the kernel, and two sandbox escapes.
When unsuspecting victims accessed these malicious websites, which had been live since 2017, the site would evaluate the device. If the iPhone was vulnerable, it would load monitoring malware. This was primarily used to steal files and upload users' live location data, Beer writes.
The malware granted access to all of a victims' database files used by apps like WhatsApp, Telegram, and iMessage so attackers could view plaintext messages sent and received. Beer demonstrates how attackers could upload private files, copy a victim's contacts, steal photos, and track real-time location every minute. The implant also uploads the device keychain containing credentials and certificates, as well as tokens used by services like single sign-on, which people use to access several accounts.
There is no visual indicator to tell victims the implant is running, Beer points out, and the malware requests commands from a command-and-control server every 60 seconds.
"The implant has access to almost all of the personal information available on the device, which it is able to upload, unencrypted, to the attacker's server," he says. It does not persist on the device; if the iPhone is rebooted the implant won't run unless the device is re-exploited. Still, given the amount of data they have, the attacker may remain persistent without the malware.
Google initially discovered this campaign in February and reported it to Apple, giving the iPhone maker one week to fix the problem. Apple patched it in iOS 12.1.4, released on February 7, 2019.
iPhones, MacBooks, and other Apple devices are widely considered safer than their competitors. Popular belief also holds that expensive zero-day attacks are reserved for specific, high-value victims. Google's discovery dispels both of these assumptions: This attack group demonstrated how zero-days can be used to wreak havoc by hacking a larger population.
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