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Browsers Hacked Before Phones at Security Show

Mar 19, 20094 mins
AppleApplication SecurityBrowsers

Safari and IE8 were easy prey in a hacking contest but hackers made little headway with mobile devices

Mobile devices took the spotlight at the CanSecWest security conference Wednesday, but it was browser bugs that got all the attention at the show’s popular hacking contest.

Conference organizers had invited attendees to display attacks that targeted previously unknown flaws in browsers or mobile devices in the show’s annual Pwn2Own contest. By the end of the first day, Internet Explorer, Safari and Firefox had all been hacked, but nobody took a crack at the five mobile devices up for grabs, even though the contest’s sponsor, TippingPoint, is paying out US$10,000 per mobile bug, twice what it’s paying for the browser flaws.

For the attacks to count, hackers had to use the bugs to get code to run on the machine. The bugs uncovered through the contest get vetted by TippingPoint, and are then handed over to the associated software vendors to be patched.

The first browser to go was Apple’s Safari browser running on a Macintosh. Last year’s contest winner, Charlie Miller quickly hacked into the Mac using a bug he found while preparing for last year’s event. Though Miller’s Apple hacking has given him a lot of attention, Safari is an easy target, he said in an interview right after his hack. “There are a lot of bugs out there.”

Microsoft’s Internet Explorer didn’t fare much better, though. Another hacker, who identified himself to organizers only as Nils, had soon hacked Internet Explorer 8. Nils then wowed the hackers in the room by unleashing exploits for Safari and Firefox as well.

Miller said he wasn’t surprised to see the mobile phones go without attack. For one thing, the rules governing the mobile phone attacks were strict, requiring that the exploit work with virtually no user interaction. In coming days, these restrictions will loosen, giving hackers more avenues of attack.

Still, Miller says that breaking into mobile devices like the iPhone is “harder” than PC hacking. Though security researchers like Miller may be interested in smart phones right now, to date there hasn’t been a lot of research and documentation of how to attack mobile platforms. “They don’t make it easy to do research on it,” Miller said.

But that may be changing, according to Ivan Arce, chief technology officer with Core Security Technologies.

While the Pwn2Own contest was going on, researchers from Arce’s company spoke in another conference room, demonstrating a program they wrote that could be used by attackers once they have managed to hack into a mobile phone. The interesting thing about Core’s shellcode software is that it can run on both the Apple iPhone and Google Android, showing that criminals could theoretically write one piece of code that would run on both platforms.

In recent months, research into mobile devices has picked up and has recently reached a “tipping point,” where more successful attacks are likely to emerge, Arce said.

There are several factors that make phones attractive targets, Arce said. For one thing, they are opening up and can run more and more third-party software. Traditionally phone companies have very tightly controlled the applications that run on their networks — at one time AT&T initially argued that third-party telephones would break its network. Today, all it takes is US$25 and a Gmail address in order to develop applications for Android.

In another opening-day mobile security talk, University of Michigan graduate student Jon Oberheide showed how Android users could be tricked into installing malicious applications by an attacker using what’s known as a man-in-the-middle attack.

Phones are more powerful, more widely adopted, and cheaper than PCs, and they often house important data, giving hackers a financial incentive to go after them, Arce said.