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June 03, 2013

A Hacked iPhone May be Just the Wrong Charger Away

By Steve Anderson, Contributing TMCnet Writer

The idea of a hacked iPhone (News - Alert)—especially for those who rely heavily on iPhones for sensitive functions and data protection be it business or personal—fills a lot of people with the kind of cold dread normally reserved for a phone call at three at the morning. But this July, a group of researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology (News - Alert) plan to show just how easy it can be to hack an iPhone armed with nothing more than the right kind of phone charger.

The researchers in question will be taking said findings to the Black Hat security conference this July, where they will show what's being called a “proof-of-concept charger” that can be used to install malware on a device running the newest version of Apple's (News - Alert) operating system, which means most current Apple devices. While the researchers were staying comparatively quiet about the details—and likely would until the Black Hat conference—it was noted that the experiment's results were “alarming” in nature, and that “all users are affected, as our approach requires neither a jailbroken device nor user interaction.”

The device in question is referred to as a “Mactans”—which shares some commonality with the full scientific name for a black widow spider—and was reportedly built around what's known as a BeagleBoard, a single-board computer largely run on open source coding. Texas Instruments (News - Alert) typically sells the BeagleBoard, and it comes in at a cost of around $45 each. Admittedly, the use of the BeagleBoard requires a larger charger than normal—a BeagleBoard, at last report, measures around three inches square—but slipping one of the malignant BeagleBoards into, say, an external battery or a docking station or the like may prove much simpler in the end. Indeed, a Mactans was built almost deliberately on a small budget and with limited time, but a more refined version could well be built by those with sufficient motive and wherewithal so to do.

The researchers in question went on to contact Apple about the Mactans' capabilities, though as yet have not received a response. But the Mactans itself can, reportedly, leave its malware behind in just under one minute of continuous exposure, and once it's in, it can be extremely difficult to dislodge. According to the researchers, the malware can be hidden in much the same way that Apple hides its own built-in hardware, making removal a difficult proposition.

Efforts from Apple came quickly in terms of blocking the ability to jailbreak an iOS device by using a USB port, and given the kind of damage that Mactans can do, Apple will likely be moving all the more quickly to find patches to block Mactans' capabilities. But with large numbers of people using Apple devices—especially iOS devices—it may well be that the metaphorical genie is out of the equally metaphorical bottle.

Still, with such clearly high stakes involved, patches are likely coming, and in fairly rapid fashion. The end result will hopefully be more secure iOS devices, but may also yield smarter hackers.

Edited by Alisen Downey
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