Apple's iCloud Activation Lock cracked

News by Steve Gold

"The question is, how did Apple not spot a bug in iTunes?", asks Context's Kevin O'Reilly.

Apple experts claim that a security flaw allows hackers to gain access to the iCloud, the cloud-based back-up service for users of iPhones and iPads. In parallel with this, CNN claims that the subversion technique can even `unbrick' stolen iPhones.  

Both reports cast a dark cloud over Apple's image as a secure operating system environment that - until recently - caused many Apple device users to ignore the need for anti-virus and security on their iPhone or iPad.

According to Cult Of Mac, the iCloud security issue allows users to bypass the Activation Lock using a free tool - DoulCi - "at which point the security feature is worthless and the content can be accessed. This leaves lost iOS devices vulnerable despite the feature that is supposed to protect them."

Billed as the first "iCloud Activation Bypass" the researchers that discovered the problem say they warned Apple of the potential vulnerability a couple of months ago.

The newswire says that, when the technology was introduced in iOS 7, Apple called the Activation Lock “a really powerful theft deterrent.”

CNN meanwhile, says the methodology used by the researchers - AquaXetine and MerrukTechnolog - involves linking the iPhone or iPad to a computer and modifying a file on the device, so tricking the unit to connect to the researcher's server, rather than the Apple network. At this stage, the researcher's server will "tell the iPhone or iPad to unlock."

Commenting on the effective cracking of the Activation Lock bypass, Kevin O'Reilly, a senior consultant with Context Information Security, said that anyone who has put their faith in Apple to protect their stolen iPhones or iPads will feel rightfully aggrieved, as this news shows that it is trivial to bypass the lock on stolen iDevices. 

"But the devil is in the detail and the question is how did Apple not spot a bug in iTunes, which means that it does not check the authenticity of the iCloud server it connects to? It also appears that Apple has been sitting on this for two months after being alerted by a security researcher," he said.

O'Reilly went on to say that it remains to be seen if this has an effect on the hearts and minds of Apple's loyal followers.

Steve Smith, managing director of security consultancy Pentura said this is serious vulnerability - especially as it seems to allow a stolen device to be unlocked and exploited relatively simply.

"As such a large number of smartphones and tablets are affected, it's likely to further increase the likelihood of these devices being targeted by thieves, until an update is ready to fix the workaround. Unfortunately, many users disable iOS7's automatic updates because of the app problems these can cause," he said. 

Andrew Mason, co-founder and technical director with Randomstorm, the Leeds-based pen testing and security systems integrator, said that, given sufficient time and resource, any security system that is developed by a human will always be breakable by a human.

"The cracking of Apple's iCloud Activation Lock, leading to the unbricking of lost and stolen iPhones is further proof of this," he said, adding that there is a constant cat and mouse chase between security systems developers and those who seek to break into those systems.

"Anything that has a huge user base will attract the attention of hackers and this exploit is testament to the huge numbers of Apple users that are willing to invest in the latest gadgets and store their most personal information on them. In this case AquaXetine and MerrukTechnlog informed Apple of their successful exploit. It is the exploits that are not disclosed and lurk on systems surreptitiously leaking information which we need to be more worried about," he explained.

Mason went on to say that Microsoft suffered from a security perspective due to the prominence of its software and "we all know the historic issues with the security of Windows."

"Apple came from a different, and more closed stance but even as an avid Apple user, I have never been under the impression that it is 100 percent safe and secure software. As with any software, there will always be vulnerabilities that will get exploited at some point by the ever growing numbers of hackers targeting Apple iOS," he said.

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

Video and interviews