Apple Watch worries security advocates

Apple's new gadget introduces a new layer of potential risk to the equation

Apple iWatch customizable faces and bands
Credit: Apple

The high price tag, short battery life and the lack of a clear killer app may deter broad adoption of the new Apple Watch, due to go on sale April 24. That might not be a bad thing, if it helps the companies involved address some privacy and security concerns.

The biggest security issue right now is that of Apple Pay, now accepted in 700,000 locations according to Tim Cook's presentation at Apple's media event earlier this week.

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The Apple Watch supports Apple Pay -- and inherits its security problems.

Although there have been no problems reported with the system itself, many banks aren't fully prepared yet to onboard users and crooks have been able to activate stolen credit cards numbers and make purchases in physical stores.

"With time, the banks will definitely put stronger processes in, but it's going to take a while," said Avivah Litan, analyst at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner, Inc.

For example, instead of processing new approvals through call centers, they could be funneled through online banking applications, she said, which are typically much more secure.

"A call center is a particularly challenging place to authenticate individuals," said Peter Tapling, CEO at Chicago-based Authentify Inc. "It's generally based on things like mother's maiden name, Social Security numbers, and addresses."

These are all things that hackers can find out easily. However, a crook is less likely to have access to the legitimate card holder's online banking account, email, or their actual phone.

In addition, in recent months we've seen spyware appear for the iPhone, allowing attackers to, say, listen in on sensitive corporate or political conversations. It's possible that the Apple Watch would be susceptible to similar attacks.

"The race begins to be the first person to jailbreak the Apple Watch," said Brett Fernicola, CISO at Hawthorne, N.J.-based STEALTHbits Technologies, Inc.

"I don't feel the need to walk around with a beacon on my wrist that wouldn't even last long enough if I was caught in an avalanche," he added. "I'll pass on the smartwatch craze and stick to a traditional watch that does one thing well, tell time without ever having to come off my wrist or put my personal information in danger."

The Apple Watch supports both WiFi and Bluetooth, expanding the attack surface of the device.

"As the device is utilizing both it will also be interesting to see how that data can be used to track individuals in physical spaces," said Ken Westin, senior security analyst at Portland, OR-based Tripwire, Inc.

That doesn't just create opportunities for malicious attackers, but also for overzealous marketers, he added.

"The fact the Apple Watch also integrates third party apps could also increase security and privacy concerns," he said.

Then there's the communications between the watch and its parent iPhones.

"There appears to be a new security vulnerability surface area for this device whereby the local phone-to-watch device network may be subject to wireless skimming or spoofing," said Philip Lieberman, president at Los Angeles-based security vendor Lieberman Software Corp.

It will take time to find out exactly how vulnerable the device is, he added, since it hasn't been released yet, and the full community of researchers hasn't had a chance to take a look at the communications between the various Apple devices, and review the software development kit for the watch.

This story, "Apple Watch worries security advocates" was originally published by CSO.

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