The Price of Power: Hackers Hit the iPhone

I’ve caught a lot of flak over the years from Apple fans for maintaining that the relative freedom of the Mac from hacker attackers was due in part to the fact that Windows was a more tempting target. The speed with which hackers have punched holes in the security of the iPhone suggest the Mac itself may be more vulnerable than its ardent fans believe.

As reported by John Schwartz in today’s New York Times (registration required), security firm Independent Security Evaluators has demonstrated an attack that lets a hostile Web page take full control of an iPhone and capture a user’s personal data. Although there is no indication that the vulnerability is being exploited in the wild, computer scientist Steven M. Bellovin of Columbia University is quoted as saying “it looks like a very genuine hack.” (You can watch a video demonstration of the attack here.)

Bellovin points out that this sort of attack is inevitable as operating systems on phones get more and more computer-like. The iPhone runs a version of Mac's OS X operating system, though Apple has been extremely stingy with details on just which pieces of OS X are included. It's not clear whether the iPhone attack, which exploits a vulnerability in the Safari browser, might also work against Macs. To date, attacks against phones have been relatively rare and not very damaging. The Symbian operating system, which is little used in the U.S. but is popular on European and Asian handsets from Nokia and Sony Ericsson, has probably been hit the hardest. I have not heard of any successful attacks on Research in Motion's BlackBerrys. And hackers have only struck a couple of glancing blows on Microsoft's Windows Mobile software, though the threat is taken seriously enough that you can now get protective software for your smartphone from Symantec and others.

I expect Apple will move swiftly to plug the hole with a patch that can be downloaded to iPhones. But this incident is a clear sign that the cat and mouse game between security experts and hackers that has long been a part of life in the world of personal computers is going to become commonplace in phones too.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.