Jan 30, 2020 - Economy & Business

Apple's closed security model is great until it isn't

iPhones in an Apple store

Photo: Alex Tai/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Last week's report that Jeff Bezos' iPhone was allegedly hacked via a WhatsApp message from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman discomfited a lot of Apple customers who long believed that one of the features of their high-priced phones was invulnerability.

The big picture: The flaw in this case was in WhatsApp, not the iPhone itself. But the larger lesson is that in a networked world full of incentives for digital mischief, there's no such thing as perfect security — only varying degrees of relative risk.

The iPhone has long been the safest bet for smartphone users, thanks to Apple's close control over the App Store and its tight reins on iOS.

  • The chief alternative, Google-developed Android, is an open-source project, which means phone manufacturers and software developers can easily adopt and adapt it for their own ends.
  • That flexibility has made Android cheaper and more ubiquitous than iOS, but it also means there are many "flavors" of its code with a wider range of bugs and flaws that offer hackers wider opportunities for attack.

The Washington Post lays out how iOS's and Android's differing software philosophies shape their security landscapes:

  • Open-source software like Android follows the principle that "given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow" — let the world pound on your system so you can find and fix as many flaws as possible. It's a messy approach that tends toward improvement as long as smart developers put their energy into squashing bugs.
  • Apple holds iOS code close, shares relatively little information about flaws, and provides all fixes and upgrades itself. That centralization keeps its software buttoned-down and clean.

The catch: Apple's approach, experts the Post talked to argue, also means that when there is an exploitable hole in iOS, it's easier to keep it secret and exploit it. That leaves "high-value targets" — like, say, billionaire Bezos — more likely to fall victim to high-value hacks.

The bottom line: As security researcher Patrick Wardle told the Post: “A lot of Apple security is amazing and really benefits the average user, but once you’re a target of an advanced adversary or three letter agency, the advanced security of these devices can be used against you."

Go deeper: The Bezos hack's shockwaves

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