Security researchers give BlackBerry PlayBook pass mark

But uncertainty over third-party software

The QNX operating system that will power future BlackBerry devices has been given a cagey thumbs up by penetration testers commissioned to probe for weaknesses in its design.

After analysing the only BlackBerry device currently running QNX, the PlayBook tablet running the undocumented Neutrino 6.6 ('Tablet OS') kernel, security testers NGS Secure found that RIM appears to have reduced the software's 'attack surface' to a considerable degree.

Applications were found to be adequately sandboxed with all calls to device subsystems run through the BlackBerry API layer, backed by restricted file and user permissions.

One weakness was that the PlayBook simulator used to test applications for deployment did not appear to require a certificate from RIM's website while being used in 'development mode.' NGS also spotted a minor flaw in the device's HDMI interface.

All relatively minor stuff but a few qualifications were made, starting with the possibility of flaws surfacing in older elements of QNX. Despite its appearance on the PlayBook, the software's heritage goes back into the embedded systems on which it was used for many years before RIM's purchase of QNX Software Systems in 2010.

An even bigger unknown were applications that enterprises might run on it, especially those using Adobe Flash and Air runtimes or the Apple-derived Webkit browser. Future interfaces not on the current PlayBook such as USB support also pose a risk.

"Organisations planning on introducing the PlayBook into their IT infrastructure should possibly consider waiting until further work has been published by the security community," counsel the researchers. "

"Our advice to any business looking at tablet technology, or indeed any new technologies, is not to rush into implementing them until all aspects have been proven."

The overall assessment, then, is that QNX is reasonably sound but also relatively immature and its coming development might introduce new issues.

The new OS is certainly important for the RIM and will be rolled out to new BlackBerry devices from 2012, the company has indicated. Only days ago three new BlackBerry devices were launched using an updated version of the current OS, BlackBerry 7, among the last to use this generation of software.

The first part of a series looking at QNX security is available on the NGS Secure website.

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