Reports that iOS exploits have been sold for $1m boost Apple’s confidence that it’s approach to security is on the money.
Google, Microsoft, Facebook and increasingly non-tech enterprise firms offer cash to researchers who report security bugs affecting their products. Microsoft offers up to $100,000 for certain categories of bugs reports. Google also offers $100,000 for certain ChromeOS bugs. Bug bounty providers calculate that offering cash will help them fix the most important flaws faster than if left to their own resources.
But where Google can boast how much it pays external researchers for reporting bugs to keep its products secure, Apple has a different way of judging its security. Flaws in Apple software reportedly fetch as high as $1m apiece on the black market, but it never pays a cent for a “zero-day” or previously unknown and un-patched software flaws, instead crediting finders by naming them in its security advisories.
One of the flaws that wasn’t captured by Apple’s vulnerability reporting program was sold to the FBI for as much as $1.3 million, which helped the agency unlock the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino shooters. Zerodium, a firm that trades these exploits with customers, including government organisations, last year put up a $1m reward for anyone who could find a remote exploit for the latest version of iOS.
The jury is still out on bug bounties. Paying researchers for reporting security bugs in software has become more popular, but some argue that vendors should secure a product before releasing it rather than paying for security after a product is released. Besides this, the price for certain bugs are still well above what Google and Microsoft are willing to pay through bounty programs.
Ivan Krstić, head of Apple’s security engineering and architecture, offered some insight to Apple’s thinking on the subject at this year's WWDC.
Krstić said security cannot be measured directly or objectively, leaving him with a few indirect signals, one of which was the price for exploits for Apple vulnerabilities.
He told developers to take “with a grain of salt” the meaning of bugs being sold for $1m, but noted that it was a “fascinating number to think about”.
The most important measure of Apple’s success in mobile security however was that it hadn’t yet seen a massive malware outbreak, which Krstić argued was because of Apple’s built-in iOS security protections and that Apple vetted its App Store. Another was Apple’s fingerprint sign-in system Touch ID, which helped raise passcode protected iOS devices from 49 percent before Touch ID to 90 percent toay.
Also, these days the jailbreaker scene needed to gather between five to 10 interrelated bugs in order to have a working product to offer iPhone owners who don’t want to be locked down to Apple’s ecosystem.