Mobile Viruses the risk keeps growing (Part 2) - iOS Apps in the Sandbox & Check App Authorisations

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Isolated: iOS Apps in the Sandbox

Apple’s method of isolation provides a measure of security: iOS only identifies the ‘root’ and ‘mobile’ user levels. Apps in a sandbox run on the ‘mobile’ level with limited rights: they may neither access other apps, nor change the kernel or start privileged processes that can’t be ended by iOS at any point to clear out memory. Because iOS developers use the programming language Objective C, apps are susceptible to buffer overflows and similar problems. Apple uses the NX (No Execute) memory protection technology built into its ARM processors, which makes such attacks difficult. In the case of a successful attack, the attacker would be able to take over an application. He would then obtain access to all the interfaces of the app, potentially including its network connections, access to the phone’s address book and calendar, device number (IMEI), telephone number, photos, videos, music and browser history. Even the device’s microphone and camera could secretly be tapped. The user needs to consent when an application wants to send messages or make calls. Only the email client cannot be accessed by apps directly. Apple has not provided any information about the extent to which apps and permissions are locked down.

The App Store is essentially a firewall for the iOS. However, jailbreaking creates breaches in the firewall. Circumventing the iPhone’s usage restrictions effectively cancels Apple’s ability to secure your apps’ certifications using the sandbox principle. As a result, apps can be installed from non-secure sources such as the app store Cydia as well as unsafe ones that promise free pirated apps. iOS becomes entirely at the mercy of viruses because any app could be altered to hide malware within it, and this would give it unhindered access to the entire system. Sometimes, a jailbreak can be even more dangerous: the iPhone worm iKee attacks devices whose SSH control panel passwords have not been changed from the default. It then spreads through Wi-Fi connections.

Description: Open App Stores: Cydia (L) is an alternative App Store for jailbroken iPhones, but the apps on offer here are not tested. Malware can easily spread via illegal shops like Hackulous (R).

Open App Stores: Cydia (L) is an alternative App Store for jailbroken iPhones, but the apps on offer here are not tested. Malware can easily spread via illegal shops like Hackulous (R).

This is impossible on Android. You can carry out a jailbreak or ‘root’ the system, but it is not as risky as with iOS because even a rooted device asks for certificates. The practice of process isolation remains in effect – at least partly. This is because at the time of rooting, the so-called Superuser shell, which warns the system against critical actions like user account control requests, is in the system directory.

Malware therefore has to make its way into sensitive system areas and ask prior permission of the user. Digital certificates under Android are more susceptible, though. They don’t control the sources of the apps because the system is designed to allow easy access to apps from different sources. The certificates therefore only prevent hackers from infecting known applications and spreading them under the same names. This verifies that an app is clean, but is in practice a poor protection method because every Android developer who does not operate in the official market can issue certificates at his own discretion. You can therefore often find malware on the Internet which resembles the original applications.

Important: Check App Authorisations

Android’s rights management system offers a better protection option: Developers must enter the desired authorizations in the file ‘AndroidManifest.xml’. The system invokes this file before the installation and requests you to confirm the authorizations. Risky features such as unhindered access to the SMS application can also be included in this. However, you must not simply accept all security permission prompts without checking them – almost all viruses are disguised as common, ordinary apps. As far as safety is concerned, Android’s openness is its biggest drawback. What is also annoying is that the authorization system doesn’t allow fine-grained control. It is always all or nothing for the user. Google chose this approach in order to make applications easier to develop and distribute.

Once an app is introduced in the system, even Android viruses general have only limited rights. Each application runs with a separate user identification in an isolated environment, the Dalvik Virtual Machine. Therefore, even malicious applications can neither access the Linux kernel nor the other apps. Thanks to this segregation, a normal Trojan actually has no chance to read the data of a banking app, for example. However, Android apps can find out which other apps are installed on the system and also when these apps processes start. A smart virus could thus wait for a known banking app to start and then set up a manipulated page using the login screen of the bank. In this way, it can phish for your user data. This risk it not posed in iOS – here, on app cannot see what another is doing. Such attacks are only theoretical, but the threat is poised to become real soon enough.

In order to remove Android malware you only need to uninstall it (or its host program). Unlike PC viruses, these generally cannot spread by themselves – the isolation method takes care of that. It is up to Google to delete apps installed through the Android Marketplace via its own remote access capabilities. An example of a more dangerous type of malware is the Trojan DroidDream, which was detected Android market. It simultaneously uses two root exploits to gain administrator rights. As a result, the malicious apps did not require any regular authorizations. After the installation, DroidDream had a free hand; it could even install other malicious code without any problem. After that, it contacted a C&C server and sent it the phone’s IMEI number. Google has closed both security loopholes with Android 2.3, but the previous versions are unchanged and not protected.

Security suites for mobile phones

If the kernel has been compromised prior to the installation of the security tool, it won’t be able to fix the problem. Such tools run only with restricted rights in separate service environments, so they won’t be aware of older exploits. Security suites can however interface with the installation of new viruses. They depend mainly on signature detection, as in case of PCs. They examine all code for known signs of malware. Proactive methods are difficult to implement under Android because the line between a just very curious and a distinctly malicious app is cannot always be identified clearly. A few manufacturers like F-Secure and Symantec still try to provide preventive protection. ‘We have automatic checking for all the free apps in the Android market for malicious software’, says Stefan Wesche, security expert with Symantec. Many security programs also offer functions beyond virus scanning. If you would like to be able to protect your data in the event that you lose you smartphone, you can use these security suites to locate the device through GPS, and make it lock itself, ring an alarm, or wipe itself out. There is no traditional malware scanner for iOS, because the system is considered to be secure as long as Apple thoroughly tests the programs that are in the App Store. Nevertheless, you can still find special browsers, such as Smart Surfing from Trend Micro, which is supposed to provide better protection against phishing websites by blocking known malicious pages. Even if you have Android, you do not need to worry as long as you check the authorizations of the apps before installation. However, if Google continues to allow malware in the Android market, then a major threat could soon be in the wild.

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