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10/28/2009
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iPhone, BlackBerry, Palm Pre All Vulnerable To Spear-Phishing Experiment

Phony LinkedIn invitation from 'Bill Gates' lands in smartphone inboxes

Three of the most popular smartphones -- iPhone, BlackBerry, and Palm Pre -- fell victim to a recent spear-phishing experiment that sent users a phony LinkedIn invitation from "Bill Gates," according to the security expert who conducted the research.

The experiment, which was aimed at measuring the effectiveness of email security controls in several major products and services, demonstrated just how powerful social engineering can be and how little technology can do about it. Joshua Perrymon, CEO of PacketFocus, sent a spoofed LinkedIn email to users in different organizations who had agreed to participate in the test; he was able to get his spoofed message through 100 percent of the time. He tested 10 different combinations of email security appliances, services, and open-source and commercial products; four major client email products; and the three major smartphone brands.

The results took Perrymon by surprise; he has contacted the various affected vendors and is working with some of them to come up with "fixes," or solutions, to the problem. He announced today that Apple's iPhone, RIM's BlackBerry, and Palm's Palm Pre all failed the experiment, delivering the phony LinkedIn messages to users' inboxes. Perrymon says he sent all three smartphone vendors his research paper and details on the experiment, but he has not received a response from any of them.

Next week, Perrymon plans to name the email appliances that failed the test, and the following week the email services that missed the phishing message.

At the time of this posting, neither Apple, RIM, nor Palm had responded to inquiries about Perrymon's findings.

Perrymon says he worked with iPhone users who agreed to participate in his experiment, and he tested his own BlackBerry and Palm Pre phones. "What I found on the Palm and BlackBerry is [that there is] no protection to any type of phishing attacks," he says. "The Palm runs on Linux, so I SSH'ed into it and looked around. The email client is built in JavaScript and made to download emails from a server -- POP, IMAP, or Exchange. So if the hosted server doesn't pick up on the email, then the phone gets the attack delivered."

And it's harder to spot a real attack in the smartphones because you can't see the detailed email headers, he says.

Each of the smartphones' browsers also let users click on the attack, so Perrymon says the issue is both in the phones' email clients and browser software. "I'm working on client-side exploits on the phones, but not ready to release anything yet on that," he says.

Perrymon, who performs spear-phishing assessments for clients, used his own phishing framework tool, called User Attack Framework (UAF), in the experiment. UAF automated the experimental attack and let him track its success. It also captured information about the "victim" after he or she clicked on the "invite" and was directed to the phishing site, including his or her IP address, user ID, location, browser, and operating system.

The trouble with socially engineered, targeted attacks is that there's no real "patch" to protect products and users from falling for them. Email authentication technologies like PGP are not widely adopted, and it's difficult for vendors to spot spoofed email messages, experts say.

Meanwhile, Perrymon says he told Apple, RIM, and Palm that even if they don't have a fix for the attack, they should at least "address the issue."

Have a comment on this story? Please click "Discuss" below. If you'd like to contact Dark Reading's editors directly, send us a message.

Kelly Jackson Higgins is the Executive Editor of Dark Reading. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise ... View Full Bio

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