Apple Makes Black Hat Debut

But presentation by Apple security team member doesn't reveal any new security details or plans for iOS

BLACK HAT USA -- Las Vegas, NV -- Apple today made its first-ever security presentation at Black Hat USA -- a talk that enumerated and detailed the main security features of its iOS mobile operating system.

The significance of the presentation by the manager of Apple's platform security team Dallas De Atley was more symbolic than it was revealing: De Atley basically spelled out the key security elements of iOS that the traditionally secretive company recently had quietly published in a white paper. Even so, there was some speculation over whether Apple might pull the presentation from the Black hat lineup at the eleventh hour like it did back in 2008, so De Atley's appearance represented a milestone.

Apple of late has made some subtle shifts in security strategy and approach, including adding automatic updates to OS X Mountain Lion and removing the controversial wording on its Mac website that had claimed Macs "don't get viruses." Its Black Hat USA appearance added another changeup to the list.

"I think it's a big deal. Apple's usually quite secretive about their approaches to all things, not just security. But they've been quietly building quite the security team for several years and it's wonderful to see them opening up and talking about what they are doing," says security researcher Dan Kaminsky. "Like everyone in the industry, they have more work to do. Also like everyone in the industry, they are really starting to do it."

[Apple is quietly making some subtle, incremental security moves in the face of new threats to its products. See 4 Signs That Apple's Sharpening Its Security Game. ]

But famed Apple hacker Charlie Miller says he was disappointed that De Atley's presentation was "straight from the [iOS white] paper" and that he didn't offer a question-and-answer session at the end. "There was nothing in that paper we didn't already know" about iOS security features, says Miller, who doesn't think Apple's talk was significant just because Apple made a public presentation.

Miller, managing principal with Accuvant Labs, says Apple missed an opportunity to provide at least a peek at some upcoming security features.

Apple's De Atley focused on iOS's Secure Boot, personalization, code-signing, sandboxing, and data protection features, all of which aim to reduce the attack surface on the devices.

"No system is going to be perfect. There will always be flaws that are going to be exploited -- we recognize that," De Atley told attendees in his talk. So Apple has built in some security controls into iOS, he said.

Among the features he discussed were Apple's software update mechanism for iOS, which he said has been successful given that 80 percent of iOS customers are running the newest version of iOS, iOS 5.

The application code-signing feature in iOS requires that all executable code is signed by Apple at installation and runtime, he said. All iOS apps that ship with the system as well as third-party apps from Apple's app store all get signed as well. "This is our first line of defense against malware on the device," De Atley said. "That means an entire class of issue can be sidestepped by enforcing that software is verified."

Apple has several layers of signing for third party apps as well. "All software that runs on the device is coming from a known location -- this ties back to our goal of reducing the attack surface for malware on iOS devices," he said, as does the way iOS separates the operating system from the user's data with a series of "partitions" that cordon them off.

Sandboxing, too, is used to isolate and separate various processes on the devices. "So if one process got a flaw and vulnerability, it can't easily wreak havoc on the rest of the systems," De Atley said. And third-party apps are each installed in their own containers.

"There's a layer of abstraction between the app and the rest of the user's data and the container is also sandboxed," he said.

A copy of the Apple iOS white paper with the security specifics is available here for download.

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About the Author(s)

Kelly Jackson Higgins, Editor-in-Chief, Dark Reading

Kelly Jackson Higgins is the Editor-in-Chief 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 Magazine, Virginia Business magazine, and other major media properties. Jackson Higgins was recently selected as one of the Top 10 Cybersecurity Journalists in the US, and named as one of Folio's 2019 Top Women in Media. She began her career as a sports writer in the Washington, DC metropolitan area, and earned her BA at William & Mary. Follow her on Twitter @kjhiggins.

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