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How iMessage distributes security to block phantom devices

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How iMessage distributes security to block phantom devices

Par Security Bloggers Network
Le [2016-04-20] à 05:42:48



Présentation : Last Friday I spent some time in a discussion with senior members of Apple s engineering and security teams. While I knew most of the technical content, it really clarified more on how Apple approaches security, much of which they ve never explicitly stated, even on background. Most of that is fodder for another post coming next, but I wanted to focus on one particular technical feature I ve never seen clearly documented before that highlights both Apple s approach to security, and shows that iMessage is more secure than I thought. It turns out you can t add devices to an iCloud account without triggering an alert since that analysis happens on your device, and doesn t rely totally on a push notification from the server. Apple put the security logic in your device, even though the system still needs a central authority. Basically, they designed it to not trust themselves. iMessage is one of the more highly-rated secure messaging systems available to consumers, at least according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation. That doesn t mean it s perfect, that doesn t mean it s without flaws, but it s an extremely secure system especially when you consider it s basically invisible to end users just use it like any text messaging and on something like a billion devices. I m not going to dig into the deep details of iMessage you can read about them in Apple s iOS Security Guide , and I also highly recommend you look at the recent research paper by Matthew Green and associates at Johns Hopkins University that exposed some design flaws in the system. Here s a simplified overview of how it works Each device tied to your iCloud account generates its own public private key pair and sends the public key up to an Apple directory server. The private key never leaves your device, and is protected by the device s Data Protection encryption scheme the one getting all the attention lately . When you go to send an iMessage, your device checks Apple s directory server for the public keys of all the recipients on all their devices based on their iCloud user ID and phone number. Your phone encrypts a copy of the message for each recipient with their public keys for each device. I currently have five or six devices tied to my iCloud account, which means if you send me a message your phone actually creates five or six copies, each encrypted with the public key for each of my devices. For you non-security readers, a public private keypair means if you encrypt something with the public key, it can only be decrypted with the private key and vice-versa . Since I never share my private key, I can make my public key very public. Then people can encrypt things that only I can read since only I have the private key. Apples Push Notification Service APN then sends all the messages to their destination devices. If you have multiple devices, you also encrypt and send copies to all your own devices so you keep the message thread. Again, this is a simplification, but what it means is Every message is encrypted from end to end. Messages are encrypted using keys tied to your devices, that cannot be removed okay, there is probably a way, especially on Macs, but not easily . Each message is encrypted multiple times for each destination device, so your private keys are never shared between devices. There s actually a lot more going on, with multiple encryption and signing operations, but that s the core of it. Now according to that Johns Hopkins paper there are some exploitable weaknesses in the system the known ones are patched , but nothing trivial, and Apple continues to harden things. Keep in mind that Apple focuses on protecting us from criminals, not necessarily governments despite current events . It s just that at some point those two priorities always converge due to the inherent nature of security. It turns out that one obvious weakness I ve seen mentioned in some blog posts and presentations isn t actually a weakness at all, thanks to a design decision. iMessage is a centralized system with a central directory server. If someone could compromise that server, they could add phantom devices to tap conversations or completely reroute them to a new destination . To limit this Apple sends you a notification every time a device is added to your iCloud account. I always thought Apple s server detected a new entry and then pushed out a notification, which would mean that if they were deeply compromised okay, forced by a government to alter their system that the notification could be faked, but that isn t how it works. Your device checks it s own registry of keys, and pops up an alert if it sees a new one tied to your account. Now according to the Johns Hopkins paper they managed to block the push notifications on a local network that triggered checking the directory and creating the alert. That s easy to fix, and although unconfirmed, I highly suspect a fix is coming in a future update. Once in place that will make it impossible to tap a line using a phantom device without at least someone in the conversation receiving an alert. The way the current system works you also can t add a phantom recipient since your device checks for the addresses you specify. Now both of those could change if Apple were, say, forced to change their fundamental architecture and code on both the server and device side. This isn t something criminals could do, and under current law thanks to CALEA the U.S. government can t force Apple to make this kind of change since it involves fundamental changes to the operation of the system. It s a design decision I like. Apple could have easily decided to push the notifications from the server and use that as the root authority for both the keys and the registered devices, but instead they chose to have the devices themselves detect any new devices based on new keys being registered which is why the alerts pop up on everything you own when you add one . It balances the need for a central authority to keep the system usable with security and privacy by putting the logic in the hardware in your pocket or desk, or tote bag, or whatever . I believe FaceTime uses a similar mechanism. iCloud Keychain and Keychain Backup use a different, but similar mechanism that relies as much as possible on your device. The rest of iCloud is far more open but I do also expect that to change over time. Overall it s a solid balance of convenience and security. Especially when you consider there are a billion Apple devices out there. iMessage doesn t eliminate the need for true zero-knowledge messaging systems, but it is extremely secure when you consider it s basically a transparent replacement for text messaging. - Rich 0 Comments Subscribe to our daily email digest

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