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Ban first, ask questions later

Many companies like Google Inc. (GOOG), Microsoft Corp. (MSFT), and the Mozilla Foundation reward developers with bounties of thousands of dollars for finding and exposing security flaws in their products.  Apple, Inc. (AAPL) rewards developers by kicking them out of the company's development program.

I. Tell Apple Its Security Problems, Get Kicked Out
 
Long-time Mac and iDevice hacker Charlie Miller [1][2][3] found this out the hard way this week when Apple unceremoniously revoked his developer privileges.
 
The incident occurred after Mr. Miller created an app called Instastock, which carried out a proof-of-concept attack using a bug he found in the iPhone's built-in Safari browser.  Safari, from iOS 4.3 onward, apparently was allowing unsigned code to be placed in memory and run.

Code signing is the biggest line of defense for iPhone owners.  Any app installed on the iPhone must first receive a special authorization (signature) from Apple via the App Store submission process.  While it is quite popular to turn off Apple's code signing protections in order to "jailbreak" iPhones -- allowing banned apps and forbidden customizations -- the exploits that allow this to be done also potentially allow malicious code to be executed.

For that reason, rather than gifting his discovery on the jailbreaking community, Mr. Miller instead opted to carefully test his discovery and then approach Apple about it.

Charlie Miller
Apple has banned Charlie Miller for exposing its flaws. [Source: YouTube]

Testing began with his Instastock app, which using the exploit performed innocous proof-of-concept mischief that would typically be forbidden, such as making the phone vibrate, downloading the contacts list to an attached computer, or launching an external YouTube video.

Instastock
Instastock, Mr. Miller's app, masqerades as an innocous stock tracking app [Source: YouTube]

Mr. Miller then approached Apple, giving the company fair warning and a chance to fix the bug before he published his findings at the SyScan conference in Taipei (Nov. 17-18).  Rather than politely compensate Mr. Miller for finding their mistake and warning them before a malicious party found it and attacked users, Apple instead reacted quite negatively to these developments.
 

Apple pulled Mr. Miller's app from the App Store -- which was pretty understandable given that while it wasn't doing anything outright malicious, it was using unauthorized functionality.  But what it did next was far more troublesome -- it kicked Mr. Miller out of its developer program, citing violations in the developer terms of service.

II. The Boot

Apple wrote Mr. Miller (via CNET):

From: appledevnotice@apple.com
Subject: Notice of Termination
Date: November 7, 2011 4:49:34 PM CST
To: [redacted]

Dear Charles Miller:

This letter serves as notice of termination of the iOS Developer Program License Agreement (the "iDP Agreement") and the Registered Apple Developer Agreement (the "Registered Developer Agreement") between you and Apple, effective immediately.

Pursuant to Section 3.2(f) of the iDP Agreement, you agreed that you would not "commit any act intended to interfere with the Apple Software or related services, the intent of this Agreement, or Apple's business practices including, but not limited to, taking actions that may hinder the performance or intended use of the App Store or the Program". Further, pursuant to Section 6.1 of the iDP Agreement, you further agree that "you will not attempt to hide, misrepresent or obscure any features, content, services or functionality in Your submitted Applications from Apple's review or otherwise hinder Apple from being able to fully review such Applications." Apple has good reason to believe that you violated this Section by intentionally submitting an App that behaves in a manner different from its intended use.

Apple may terminate your status as a Registered Apple Developer at any time in its sole discretion and may terminate you upon notice under the iDP Agreement for dishonest and misleading acts relating to that agreement. We would like to remind you of your obligations with regard to all software and other confidential information that you obtained from Apple as a Registered Apple Developer and under the iDP Agreement. You must promptly cease all use of and destroy such materials and comply with all the other termination obligations set forth in Section 12.3 of the iDP Agreement and Section 8 of the Registered Developer Agreement.

This letter is not intended to be a complete statement of the facts regarding this matter, and nothing in this letter should be construed as a waiver of any rights or remedies Apple may have, all of which are hereby reserved. Finally, please note that we will deny your reapplication to the iOS Developer Program for at least a year considering the nature of your acts.

Sincerely, Apple Inc.

Mr. Miller quickly fired off a post to Twitter, commenting:

OMG, Apple just kicked me out of the iOS Developer program. That's so rude!

The post drew the sympathy of Microsoft developer relations officer Brandon Watson who offered Mr. Miller a free developer subscription on Microsoft's Windows Phone platform, writing:

Hey #0xcharlie, sorry iOS credentials went missing. Want a free Windows Phone dev account? #wpdev folks love the platform.

Of course Mr. Miller is likely going to keep on hacking Apple devices, but the Microsoft post is a clever bit of PR in that it helps illustrate the major difference in approach between Apple and Microsoft -- or Apple and most software firms, for that matter.

This incident isn't terribly surprising for a company that reportedly ordered its employees to lie to customers about malware and who steadfastly insists that its devices are too "magical" to be vulnerable to traditional attacks.

Sources: Charlie Miller, Brandon Watson (Microsoft), CNET



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RE: Interesting turn of events
By JasonMick (blog) on 11/8/2011 12:14:08 PM , Rating: 5
quote:
While I personally agree with the actions Mr Miller has taken, I also agree Apple had the right to proceed as they did. The right course of action tends to be contact the company who owns the effected software and if they show no interest then you release the code so that the public is aware of the issue.

I agree with you in a very limited capacity.

Did Apple have the RIGHT to ban Mr. Miller for his actions?

Absolutely. He violated Apple's restrictive terms of service.

But to recap what happened here in a general sense:

1. Security research turned dev. finds dangerous bug.
2. Security researcher reaches out to Apple with findings.
3. Apple refuses to fix the problem.
4. Security researcher submits a dummy app to prove that exploit is possible.
5. Security researcher approaches Apple a second time with proof the malicious apps can be approved via the App Store process.
6. Apple refuses to fix the flaw and bans the dev.
7. Dev. goes public.

Virtually no major software company has as much of an anti-security mindset as Apple these days. The last company I can think of that was that resistant to fixing glaring flaws in its products was AOL in the 90s ... and we all know how that ended up.

The real question people should be asking here is not "Was Apple within its rights to ban the dev?", but rather "Was Apple behaving responsibly and protecting its customers?"

The answer to the latter question appears to be a resounding "no".

Google, Microsoft, and every other major smartphone maker BESIDES Apple all encourage security researchers to become developers and test their platforms' security. Apple is the only one of the major players to ban security professionals from its platform and refuse to fix vulnerabilities until they've been widely publicized in the blogosphere.

Apple's approach is utterly abusive to the end user. It can and will lead to some customers seeing avoidable financial or reputation damage, mark my words. But I guess to an extent buyer beware. If you buy a product from a company that blatantly doesn't care about its users, you get what you asked for.


RE: Interesting turn of events
By MrBlastman on 11/8/2011 1:26:17 PM , Rating: 2
Bite the Apple and refuse to swallow it... and you'll soon find that you've been spit out.


RE: Interesting turn of events
By Fritzr on 11/8/11, Rating: -1
RE: Interesting turn of events
By blankslate on 11/8/2011 2:31:38 PM , Rating: 5
Microsoft would actually have started work on a solution to the security hole and sent the person or security company who found the flaw confirmation that they were doing so.

MS probably also would have asked the developer for a bit of time before showing how the flaw worked until after a fix was worked out.

Only Apple can get away with trying to ignore the problem then kicking a developer who won't let them ignore the problem that he called to their attention for 6 months or so.


RE: Interesting turn of events
By wickyman on 11/8/11, Rating: -1
"I mean, if you wanna break down someone's door, why don't you start with AT&T, for God sakes? They make your amazing phone unusable as a phone!" -- Jon Stewart on Apple and the iPhone














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