This is the second post in a three-part series on smartphones and information security. The series will discuss overall security of the BlackBerry, Apple and Android mobile operating systems.
Continuing from our previous post on the advantages and challenges of the BlackBerry operating system, we now move on to Apple mobile operating system (iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch), known as iOS.
As mentioned previously, the iPhone has been making waves in the industry concerning its recent introduction to the Verizon Wireless network. Regardless of the initial customer turnout for Verizon’s in-store release, the iPhone is still considered one of the most highly respected and coveted smartphones in the market.
Exclusivity of the iPhone iOS
The iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad now run iOS 4.2. Apple has not only changed its major version, but also changed its name — from iPhone OS to iOS — in recognition of the fact that voice phone functions are a shrinking fraction of their mobile devices’ functionality.
So, what's the main differentiator between early smartphones and iPhone? I believe the essential “newness” was that Apple inserted the iPhone into its maturing iPod/iTunes content ecosystem and added the App Store. This closed environment gives users a unified device experience within Apple’s “walled garden.” Apple prides itself on having created a trusted, friendly device that, conveniently for Apple, only downloads music, videos, podcasts and apps from the iTunes App Store.
While most iPhone owners find this state of affairs comforting, some find it frustrating. The ultimate form of challenging the control of Apple and their carrier at the device level is a process known as “jailbreaking”. Jailbreaking removes the controls, limitations and safeguards put in place by Apple, thus enabling the device to access and run applications, extensions and themes available outside of Apple’s App Store. However, the added freedom comes with a tradeoff because the App Store is part of the Apple “cocoon of security.” While Apple makes no guarantees (in their end user agreement) that apps will not misbehave, they do take more effort than any other vendors to assure that an application does what it says it does and only that. They also restrict content they deem explicit.
iOS Security Benefits and Weaknesses
In addition to scrutinized applications, Apple’s iOS uses a “sandboxed application” philosophy. A sandbox is a default installation state of no access to OS level objects, such as persistent storage or executable. The sandboxed app can, of course, access its own data and network resources freely, but can’t reach into the phone’s OS or even “talk to” other applications except in very controlled ways. This makes it harder to write applications that cooperate via drag and drop, etc., but improves security significantly. It makes it harder for applications to spy on and export each other’s data, and more straightforward when uninstalling an application and cleaning up its associated data. If an employer controls the apps and deletes the CRM app, the CRM’s database of company confidential customer information is deleted with it.
Of course, retaining our healthy skepticism, iOS is just a device operating system and like all large complex software systems is not exempt from bugs and security issues:
- Erik Sherman’s post, “Want to Protect Your Emails? Don’t use these 11 Android and iPhone Email Apps” cites, in particular, issues with Microsoft’s Windows Live Messenger on the iPhone.
- Just this month (Feb. 2011) the Frauenhofer Institute SIT, exploited an iOS stored password/encryption vulnerability. Via the aforementioned jailbreaking process, the SIT research team was able to crack into stored iOS password vault, called the Keychain, in as little as six minutes. In addition to the hardware encryption key for that device's storage, where application data would be stored, the Keychain contains user account/password pairs for such things as websites, email accounts, wi-fi hotspots, etc. Optimistically, since Apple controls the ecosystem from the hardware up, they can rework the affected encryption architecture and system libraries to use the hardware in a different way to restore security to the iOS devices out there. This should be an advantage of a monolithic device provider.
Apple continues to make iOS more enterprise friendly with hooks to email and other corporate services considered critical. For example, companies can control whether the device locks its screen after an idle interval and requires a password to get in. Or, after say, ten failed attempts to get into the device, it wipes itself (data and applications or just the corporate controlled data and applications). It can now be remotely wiped on demand by a command sent from a company IT security department.
What has your experience been?
Do you love the security of Apple’s walled garden or is it driving you nuts? Are you excited or worried about switching from your current smartphone to an iPhone? We’d like you to share your thoughts and questions with us.
Check out the first post in this series, and stay tuned for additional posts on information security with the leading smartphone operating systems:
- Google Android
John Brady is Information Security Architect Engineer at Westfield Insurance. Sharing Knowledge. Building Trust.