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Two Activation Lock Vulnerabilities Surface in iOS

Posted on January 5, 2017

Of the most important features built into iOS, the Activation Lock is one which users seldom directly encounter but which benefits everyone. In short, the Activation Lock is a setting which allows you to link your iCloud username and password to the device hardware. This login info is thereafter needed for tasks such as signing out of your iCloud account or disabling Find My iPhone. It even turns off the ability to erase your data without supplying login details. The Activation Lock is an anti-theft measure, and quite an effective one, too. However, researchers recently discovered several bugs which can allow someone to bypass the lock.

First is an exploit engineered by an Indian security researcher. This exploit attacks an overflow vulnerability present during the process of setting up a new iOS device. When the locked device prompts for login information for a Wi-Fi network, the user simply needs to enter thousands of random characters in both the SSID and WPA2 password fields. This method causes the system to lock up. Usually, one would just press the home button to exit the screen and restart the process. With the correct and highly precise timing, however, the attacker can gain access to the unlocked home screen. This exploit only affects users of iOS 10.1. If you’re still using it, it’s time to upgrade.

However, the second exploit, though very similar, is slightly different — and remains unpatched in the current version of iOS, version 10.2. While pressing the home button no longer works, researchers discovered that rotating the device while executing the exploit would give them a window of opportunity. Pressing the home button at just the right moment while rotating the device still results in the user being granted access to the basic home screen.

As attacks go, this one is relatively minor and unlikely to see widespread use.  Apple will likely issue a patch for this problem soon. Nonetheless, iPhone and iPad owners should be careful to avoid leaving their devices any place where it could be stolen. While the Activation Lock is a robust solution to the problem of device theft, it’s best to avoid the problem altogether. Keep an eye out for a forthcoming iOS update and any word on whether this particular bug has finally been stomped out for good.

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