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11/27/2019
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New Free Emulator Challenges Apple's Control of iOS

An open-source tool gives researchers and jailbreakers a free option for researching vulnerabilities in the operating system - and gives Apple a new headache.

A security researcher at Black Hat Europe in London next week plans to release an open source low-level emulator that can run a version of Apple's mobile operating system.

The project, based on the open-source machine emulator QEMU, will allow security researchers to have more access to iOS processes and operations, an advantage when searching for vulnerabilities and systems weaknesses, says Jonathan Afek, the leader of the emulation project and a security team research manager at dynamic-testing provider HCL AppScan.

Afek plans to demonstrate the iOS kernel running on a QEMU virtual machine as well as show ways of using the setup to search for vulnerabilities.

"Apple iPhones are quite secure, but all platforms have a lot of vulnerabilities in them," he says. "I think this platform, quote-unquote, in its current stage, it will make life easier for researchers and make the iPhone more secure by allowing security researchers to investigate vulnerabilities before they are exposed by others."

Apple is unlikely to agree. The project is the latest attempt to provide interested researchers with a platform that could be used by reverse engineers to look for vulnerabilities as well as those aiming to jailbreak their phones.

Yet, like most aspects of its iOS ecosystem, Apple keeps tight control of who can run its operating system and in what ways. Apple considers any non-approved use of its iOS operating system to be an infringement of its intellectual property. 

An Apple Lawsuit

In August, Apple sued mobile device virtualization company Corellium for offering a service based on a similar platform it had developed — albeit, one that is far more mature than Afek's open-source version.

"Although Corellium paints itself as providing a research tool for those trying to discover security vulnerabilities and other flaws in Apple's software, Corellium's true goal is profiting off its blatant infringement," Apple stated in its lawsuit. "Far from assisting in fixing vulnerabilities, Corellium encourages its users to sell any discovered information on the open market to the highest bidder."

Since January 2018, Corelliuim has offered the tool as a service to bug hunters an security researchers to emulate an iPhone running any version of the operating system. The company argues that allowing researchers to work on an emulated iOS is helpful for the entire community of users.

"We founded Corellium to equip the mobile community with the scalable, efficient, and innovative tools they need to push the mobile ecosystem forward," Amanda Gorton, CEO of Corellium, wrote in a statement regarding the lawsuit by Apple. "By combining the fidelity of native architecture with the advantages of a virtual resource, our pioneering platform empowers security experts, software developers, and mobile testers to do their work better than they could before — whether that's testing an app, conducting training, or working for our national defense."

Findig vulnerabilities in Apple devices can be lucrative. In January 2019, for example, exploit and surveillance software firm Zerodium doubled the bounty — to $2 million — that the company pays to researchers that privately offers a previously unknown exploit that can compromise an iPhone with no interaction. The company provides such exploits to its clients to test their own systems and attack targeted devices.

Increasing interest in the security of its devices prompted Apple to increase what it pays to researchers as part of its bug bounty program. Finding a vulnerability that allows a program to get around the secure boot firmware can earn a bounty of $200,000 as of May 2019, according to the company's iOS Security whitepaper. In the past, only vetted researchers could participate in the bounty program, but the company has reportedly since opened up the process to anyone.

Meanwhile, the iOS emulator that HCL AppScan's Afek developed is still very much a work in progress. The platform cannot run the latest version of iOS nor emulate the latest hardware, he says.

"It is in the very early stages — it only runs iOS 12.1 for iPhone 6," Afek says. "I'm currently working on additional features and support for newer iOS versions. It will be a challenge, but not a really big challenge — just a little bit of work to support the newer features."

Afek's Black Hat Europe presentation will be on Dec. 4. Apple did not return an e-mail request seeking comment on the new platform.

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Veteran technology journalist of more than 20 years. Former research engineer. Written for more than two dozen publications, including CNET News.com, Dark Reading, MIT's Technology Review, Popular Science, and Wired News. Five awards for journalism, including Best Deadline ... View Full Bio

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