Mobile device makers react differently to attack info, researcher says

RIM and Apple work on patch for issue; Google and HTC said to shrug it off

ARLINGTON, Va. --When a researcher at an ethical-hacking firm discovered mobile devices from Apple, Google, RIM and HTC had a flaw in them that would allow an attacker using malicious Web code to freeze them up and crash them, he contacted the companies last year. While RIM decided the problem needed to be patched in its BlackBerry devices and Apple worked on its iPhone and iPad, Google and HTC reportedly shrugged off the information that TEHTRI-Security supplied.

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Google responded by saying, "Traditionally, we don't consider local denial of service attacks of this kind to be security bugs," said Laurent Oudot, an IT security consultant who is founder and CEO of TEHTRI-Security, quoting from his communication with Google last October. "No patch needed." Oudot, who gave a presentation at the Black Hat DC 2011 Conference yesterday, said he found it a study in contrasts to see how vendors responded to the information.

The attack he found would allow targeting of Gmail applications and "the browser application will die," said Oudot of the purported flaw in Android. He briefly shared a glimpse of the attack code with the conference attendees in the hope the open-source community might work on changes in Android to address the problem, but said he didn't plan on publishing it on his Web site.

Oudot shared the same type of mobile-device attack freeze-up findings to RIM last spring. Although the company considered the attack threat to be fairly low risk, RIM did decide to undertake a corrective patch to 14 devices. That turned out to be a surprisingly lengthy process of about 200 days as the company quietly worked with its 500 or so carrier partners to get the fix tested and accepted by them. The company says it is only the third security patch in its history, and it was only on Jan. 11 of this year that it could finally published an advisory on it, keeping it quiet as the lengthy patch roll-out process with the carriers progressed in wave after wave..

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"Anything you do to change a device can have an impact on their networks," said Adrian Stone, director of security response at RIM. While getting the patch itself made went quickly, it was the process of coordinating the "carrier acceptance" that stretched the entire remediation process into about 200 days,

In a separate discussion with Network World, Stone shared insight into the role the carrier relationships play in issuing updates. The vulnerability finding shared by Oudot was considered "a low severity issue," Stone points out but certainly a real issue that needed to be addressed.

Carriers are typically the forces pushing out software updates of RIM products to users, which whether enterprise or consumers, can decide when to apply since sometimes this takes some time. RIM works closely with carriers, especially the large ones such as AT&T, to develop software updates. Under contract arrangements, the software isn't generally released until carriers have tested, approved and scheduled a time to push the software out officially to customers.

Since the issue discovered by Oudot was not considered high risk, the considerable length of time the entire remediation process took — which was kept confidential for security purposes — was considered an appropriate trade-off. But Stone points out that if it found out about a security problem with RIM devices that was considered so high risk that it could not wait for this carrier-approval process, RIM would not hesitate to push out any needed security patch directly from its Web site for the benefit of end users. Fortunately, he says, that has never happened.

Apple, which is addressing the issue of a potential overflow in Web handling software components on uncorrected versions of the iPhone and IPad, is finished with its remediation except for the very last patch need for the iPad which should be out soon, according to Oudot.

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