It’s not been a good couple of weeks for Apple. The company that likes to brand itself as superior to rivals in its approach to security has been found wanting. Early in August it was forced to admit that contractors had been listening in to conversations on its Siri network. It has now temporarily stopped the practice, claiming that only “snippets” of conversations were captured to improve data.
At the end of last week, a much more serious security and privacy threat was made public. Google researchers revealed that hackers have put monitoring implants into iPhones for years, affecting thousands of users per week. The hacking operation, which started in 2017, used several web sites to deliver malware onto iPhones. Users did not have to interact with the site: just visiting was enough. From there, criminals were able to siphon passwords and chat histories from WhatsApp, iMessage and Telegram – bypassing the encryption designed to protect the integrity of these messaging apps. According to the researchers, attackers used five different exploits across 14 pieces of malware.
This is undoubtedly a major incident. It strongly undermines Apple’s reputation for securing users’ devices and the (personal) data residing on these. In an age where all tech companies are facing criticisms for misuse of customer data it comes as a body blow to Apple’s security management expertise; something it has consistently portrayed itself as superior.
What is worse is the revelation that Apple was made aware of the flaw in the iPhone in February this year. Apple did release a patch for the flaw, but why did it not make a much more urgent public announcement back In February to warn all iPhone users to update iOS software urgently? This is Apple’s real failure: trying to make everyone believe it has the best security controls but not delivering. It’s not the first time that Apple’s culture of secrecy has undermined security as a previous blog by Martin Kuppinger illustrates.
Not surprisingly, others were making hay at Apples expense on social media last week. “This is a huge find by Google’s team,” said Alex Stamos, Facebook’s former security chief and now a researcher at Stanford University, while Marcus Hutchins, a security researcher who helped stop the WannaCry attack in 2017 wrote, “Maybe I’m missing something, but it feels like Apple should have found this themselves.”
Apple did not fail to patch but it failed to act swiftly and adequately communicate the flaw, and now it finds itself on the backfoot. Was all this the result of hubris or carelessness? Either way it’s not a good look as it gears up to launch the iPhone 11 and promote its new credit card as a secure alternative to conventional bank cards. As ever the best advice for users of iPhones or any device is to ensure you always have the most up to date operating system installed by making a regular check.