For all the talk about hackers cracking Apple's Touch ID security, there's another Apple-related threat that should be on the smartphone world's radar screen. But this one comes with a twist.
And here's the twist: It's not Apple users who are at risk. It's Android users who think they are looking at an Apple app.
The app is called iMessage Chat and it's available for free from the Google Play Store. The app lets Android users chat with iOS users, much like BBM (BlackBerry Messenger) lets BlackBerry users chat with other platforms. But it reportedly reads your messages, installs malware on your device, and even steals your Apple passwords.
Accessing the Secret Sauce
Jay Freeman, an application developer best known for creating the Cydia app store for jailbroken iPhones, is sounding the alarm. He explained the way it works: The client directly connects to Apple, but the data is all processed on the developer's server in China.
"This not only means that Apple can't just block them by IP address, but also that they get to keep the 'secret sauce' on their servers (and potentially just run Apple code: there are some parts of the process in Apple's client code that is highly obfuscated)," he wrote on a Google+ post.
Freeman explained that every packet from Apple is forwarded to 18.104.22.168, which then sends back exactly what data to send to Apple, along with extra packets that he presumes tell the client what's happening so it can update its user interface. Likewise, he said, if the client wants to send a message, it first talks to the third-party server, which returns what needs to be sent to Apple. The data is re-encrypted as part of this process, he continued, but its size is deterministically unaffected.
"Clearly, this is suboptimal from a security perspective. Is this the kind of thing that Google gets involved in?" he asked. "The developer is even responding to reviews about login issues asking only for user's Apple IDs, which makes it sound like even the authentication must be under his direct control (where it can be logged and debugged given only the username). Arguably, though, the app does do what it claims to do ;P."
Is It Really Malware?
Ken Pickering, director of engineering at CORE Security, pointed to the growing number of Android malware headlines in tech news lately. But he told us he's not sure if this application directly fits the bill.
"It's hard to know if it's a bad application or a phishing attempt. They're not informing users that their credentials and messages are likely stored on developer servers and it doesn't seem to do what it claims -- according to the Verge's test -- that could be because Apple has blocked its servers, or it may be a ham-handed attempt to farm credentials," Pickering said.
"But, the general rule of thumb for all mobile app installers: review the security information Android gives you when you install an app, and be careful about entering any external credentials into any third-party application unless you trust them completely," he added.