Spy Agency Contractor Puts Out a $1M Bounty for an iPhone Hack

21 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

A spy agency is offering $1m to anyone who can hack the new iOS.

‘Due to the increasing number of security improvements and the effectiveness of exploit mitigations in place, Apple’s iOS is currently the most secure mobile OS,’ it said in a statement. ‘But don’t be fooled, secure doesn’t mean unbreakable, it just means that iOS has currently the highest cost and complexity of vulnerable exploitation and here’s where the Million Dollar iOS9 Bug Bounty comes into play.’ Hackers have long sold their secret techniques – which target vulnerabilities known as ‘zero-days’ – to companies and agencies, but it has usually been kept in the shadows. Zerodium, a zero-day vulnerability company that specializes in buying and selling exploits, announced that it will offer a record-breaking $1 million for a full iOS 9 browser-based exploit delivered to it by October 31.While millions of iPhone users have eagerly upgraded to iOS 9, a new race is on among researchers to find critical flaws in Apple’s software, and they’re throwing around more cash than ever to get hackers to find the holes.With the release of the iPhone 6s (and 6s Plus) just around the corner and iOS 9 freshly installed on many Apple fans’ devices, the race to find a way to jailbreak the new software—allowing users to install whatever they want/wind up with viruses on an incredibly secure device—is on.

Zerodium was created by Chaouki Bekrar, the founder of VUPEN, a company akin to the Hacking Team, which created its own exploits and then sold them to the highest bidder (even if that was a country that often uses such exploits to violate human rights). Wired’s Andy Greenberg reports: Bekrar’s past customers for such undisclosed hacking techniques have included the NSA as well as other NATO countries and “NATO partners” that Bekrar declines to name. With the new company and his flashy iOS bounty, Bekrar is expanding from merely creating zero-days to brokering them, too, as a kind of hacker middleman. “Zerodium’s main goal is to capture the most advanced zero-day exploits and the highest risk vulnerabilities which are discovered, held, or sometimes stockpiled by talented researchers around the globe,” he wrote to WIRED in an email. Zerodium is giving hackers until October 31st to submit entries, meaning developers have less than two months to create and deploy a proof of concept for the exploit. That’s why they’re putting up $3 million ($1 million each to three separate winners) in return for exploits that manage to circumvent Apple’s security.

Bekrar declined to identify any of Zerodium’s potential customers, but he has previously revealed that they’re limited to certain government agencies. It’s more likely that the time limit will pass before anyone successfully claims the prize, but the huge purse should be enough to tempt some of best developers to take a shot at it. The full rules are available for perusal on Zerodium’s website, but the jailbreak must go through the OS’s web browser or a text message and work across several devices, including the new iPhone 6s.

ACLU lead technologist Chris Soghoian has called Bekrar a “modern-day merchant of death,” selling “the bullets for cyberwar.” After a sale, Soghoian argues, Vupen turns a blind eye to where its exploits end up and whether repressive regimes might be using them to spy on citizens. Rather than report vulnerabilities in software to the companies that make it to help fix hackable bugs, Vupen develops hacking techniques based on those bugs and typically sells them to multiple government customers. The terms for Zerodium’s contest state that the exploit must allow attackers to remotely and silently install an arbitrary app like Cydia on a iOS 9 device via a webpage attack or text message. However, Zerodium doesn’t do the noble thing and report its zero-day exploits—which exist in software currently in use by consumers—to the software makers, so know that if you rise to their challenge, you could be leaving tons of people’s phones open to attack depending on who’s lining up to buy the information from Zerodium. (That’s “law enforcement, governments, and major private companies,” according to Forbes.) Although, I’m sure you could fine plenty of ways to ease your conscience with your newfound riches. His iOS bounty is no different: The terms of the offer include the demand that the bug not be reported to Apple or publicly disclosed, the better to allow Zerodium’s customers to use the technique in secret.

The announcement should get malware developers’ attention, but also that of the media and governments, which are already working on an arrangement to increase the limitations they put on those who work with security vulnerabilities (which can also lead to negative consequences). But Bekrar doesn’t see Wassenaar as a serious obstacle to his new business, and points out that the arrangement has yet to be implemented in the United States. “We will comply with applicable regulations as any cybersecurity company,” Bekrar says. “Wassenaar adds a layer of paperwork but does not aim to prevent companies from conducting their businesses.” But Zerodium certainly isn’t the only willing buyer for an iOS exploit. If Zerodium is willing to pay up to $3 million for three zero-day iOS 9 exploits, that could also mean that it already has one or multiple buyers that are willing to pay them back even more for these exploits. Of course, since then, Microsoft has already completely replaced Skype’s P2P architecture with one that is more centralized and more mobile-friendly, but also more wiretap-friendly. Now that Zerodium has made this announcement, it could also make Apple’s security engineers even more vigilant about the security architecture of iOS, and they may work even harder to fix whatever flaws it may have left in it.

But with a million dollars on the table, expect a new wave of hackers to try. 1Correction 9/21/2015 11am EST: An earlier version of the story stated that Zerodium sold only to government agencies, when in fact its website also states that it sells to corporate customers.

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