Jan 30, 2020

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

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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Google releases developer version of Android 11

Image: Google

Google released an earlier-than-expected test version of Android 11, offering developers a glimpse of what to expect in the final release later this year. Among the changes in the early code are improved support for 5G and foldable devices, as well as more granular security protections.

The big picture: Once upon a time, Google waited until its spring I/O developer conference to share code for the next version of Android, but has been moving the release earlier in recent years to give developers more time to prepare for the under-the-hood changes.

China looms large in Apple's earnings report amid coronavirus outbreak

Photo: Nicolas Asfouri/AFP via Getty Images

China figured prominently throughout Apple's earnings report on Tuesday, helping fuel the company's record holiday quarter, but also playing a role in the uncertainty hanging over the current quarter.

Why it matters: Apple is the latest company to flag that China's coronavirus outbreak could harm near-term business.

Go deeperArrowJan 29, 2020

Software disaster sinks Iowa caucus

Biden supporters caucus in a Des Moines, Iowa, gym. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The disastrous rollout of the Iowa Democratic Party's new vote-reporting app Monday night looks to go down as a software train wreck for the ages.

The big picture: Coding disasters have been with us as long as there's been software, and in the past they've led to exploding space missions and lethal doses of radiation for cancer patients. In this case, the failure of a new app, followed by long delays with a phone-reporting backup system, seems to have crippled the calendar-leading Iowa Democratic caucuses — adding a fresh element of instability to our troubled election system.