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Why Isn't Apple a Leader in Security?

8/09/2014 by


I believe Apple CEO Tim Cook when he says that he genuinely wants to protect iPhone owners. Much about the recently revealed harvesting of nude photographs of celebrities from cloud-based backups of their iPhones, backups they might not have even been aware existed, suggests that this attack worked in part because it never occurred to anyone at Apple that such photos would be so common as to attract hackers in the first place.

But that's me being charitable. It's also equally possible that Apple's leadership or security teams long ago made the calculus that it was better to save Apple the expense and effort of creating a stronger security perimeter around iCloud, hoping that it would never become an issue.
And here's why I feel comfortable saying something that cynical: Almost every security expert I spoke to in the course of researching this column was aghast that Apple has long left users of its iCloud backup service for iPhone so vulnerable.

And before anyone dismisses this as an issue that affects only celebrities, remember this: Evidence gathered by security specialists who immersed themselves in the hacker message boards where these nudes were being traded discovered that it wasn't just celebrities being hacked, but everyday folks as well. Often, people were targeted by someone close to them, someone nontechnical who simply wanted to invade their privacy, who would then team up with a willing hacker.

We don't know how often this sort of thing happened; it could be a few dozen people or it could be thousands. But as ever more of our life is stored in our smartphones and backed up to the cloud—including, potentially, financial and health data—all of those cloud backups of our smartphones' contents are going to become exponentially more attractive to hackers. They will become conduits for financial fraud, identity theft, revenge and general mayhem. They must be at least as secure as our bank accounts and primary email addresses, and thus far Apple's fixes for the iCloud hack don't measure up to the security measures protecting either.

To understand why, here's a brief primer on one of the ways everyone's iCloud backup of their iPhones—though not on by default—remains vulnerable. There are many routes into an online account, but often the best way is to ignore the "front door"—that form requesting your password—and try for a "back door." The most common one is the password recovery process.

To reset a lost iCloud password, users are asked "security questions" they previously answered. We've all created these before, and they tend to have answers like the name of your first boyfriend or girlfriend, or your mother's maiden name. The problem is that in an age of social media, where much of this information is either public or only one friend-request away, they are terribly insecure, and a favorite route used by hackers to penetrate accounts.`

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