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Bug leaves iPhones vulnerable to hackers stealing email contents; Apple downplays threat

A newly discovered bug in the built-in Mail app for iPhones could allow an attacker to read, modify and delete emails, researchers say.

Apple says it will patch the vulnerability in the next version of iOS, 13.4.5, and that users of the beta software are already protected. But until that update is made available to the general public, every other iPhone user is vulnerable to the attack, which can be used to steal the contents of emails.

The bug is particularly severe for a number of reasons, according to the security company ZecOps, which published details of its findings this week: there is no public fix for the flaw, which affects every version of iOS from 6 upwards; it can be exploited on the latest version of iOS without any user interaction; and it has already been discovered in use by real-world attackers, dating back to January 2018.

Until the vulnerabilility is patched, ZecOps recommends that users “consider disabling the Mail application and use Outlook or Gmail” instead.

The attack works by sending specially crafted emails that flood the memory of a device, allowing the attacker to break out of the protections that Apple normally puts in place to prevent Mail accidentally running malicious code.

It contains enough limitations to prevent it being widely exploited, according to Jake Moore, a cybersecurity specialist at the internet security firm Eset. Each email would need to be specifically crafted for a single target, rather than a “mass hack” affecting thousands of people, he said.

“It is somewhat disconcerting at how easy it seems to have been to remotely exfiltrate private data from Apple devices,” he said.

For those who might be deliberately targeted by hackers, however, the risk is not merely theoretical. By examining its logs of email traffic, the security researchers say they have found at least six instances when they believe the bug was actively exploited, with targets including a European journalist, a German “VIP” and individuals from a “Fortune 500 organisation in North America”.

Because the attacker gains the ability to delete emails, they can also delete the email they sent to trigger the exploit in the first place, effectively covering their tracks.

ZecOps said it believed the attacks were carried out by “at least one nation-state threat operator”, but declined to identify any country.

Satnam Narang, principal research engineer at the cybersecurity firm Tenable, said the flaws were “significant and noteworthy”. “While Apple has issued fixes for these flaws in the beta version of iOS 13.4.5, devices are still vulnerable until the final version of iOS 13.4.5 is readily available to all iOS device owners,” he said. “In the interim, the only mitigation for these flaws is to disable any email accounts that are connected to the iOS Mail application, and use an alternative application, such as Microsoft Outlook or Google’s Gmail.”

Apple downplays iOS Mail app security flaw

Apple says it has found no evidence that recently discovered security flaws in the native iOS Mail app were exploited by hackers, the company said in a statement. “We have found no evidence they were used against customers,” the company said. It also cast doubt on whether the issues, which it admitted were present on both the iPhone and the iPad versions of its Mail app, were enough to bypass the two devices’ security protections.

Apple’s response directly contradicts the claims of security researchers at ZecOps, who said that they’d found evidence of the exploit being used against at least six high-profile targets. The flaws allowed a hacker to infect a device simply by sending it a specially-crafted email and for the victim to open it. At the time ZecOps said it had “high confidence” that the vulnerabilities had been exploited in the wild by “advanced threat operator(s).”

Apple said that the vulnerabilities, which ZecOps claimed date back as far as iOS 6, do not pose an immediate risk to its users and will be addressed in a forthcoming software update. When it originally disclosed the vulnerabilities, ZecOps said that Apple had already addressed the issues in the beta version of Apple Mail.

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