Apple updates iPhone, beats researchers’ deadline

Apple Inc. issued the first security update for the iPhone yesterday, beating an Aug. 2 deadline to fix a flaw researchers said could be used to steal data from the device or even force it to make calls or secretly record conversations.

The iPhone 1.0.1 update, which is delivered through Apple’s iTunes software and doesn’t show up in the usual Software Update panel in Mac OS X (even when the phone is connected to a Mac), fixes two flaws in the Safari browser– one in WebCore and two in WebKit. WebCore is the part of the WebKit application framework that handles HTML rendering in the Mac operating system.

All five bugs are related to browsing, and include cross-site scripting and address-spoofing vulnerabilities. The two most dangerous vulnerabilities — one in Safari, one in WebKit — could be used by hackers to execute attack code on a vulnerable iPhone and possibly hijack the device. Although Apple does not rate vulnerabilities as Microsoft Corp. and other companies do, both of these bugs would rank as “critical” on most vendors’ threat scales.

The critical Safari bug was first disclosed last week by a trio of researchers at Baltimore-based Independent Security Evaluators (ISE), who said then that they would provide more information on the vulnerability and their exploit code in a presentation Thursday afternoon at the Black Hat security conference.

In a paper posted to the Internet last week, the three stated that because the iPhone runs all network processes with full administrative privileges, hacking any application — say Safari — on the phone gives an attacker complete access to all data on the iPhone and its operating system’s APIs.

Apple’s advisory included some details of the vulnerability that the ISE researchers found. “Heap buffer overflows exist in the Perl Compatible Regular Expressions (PCRE) library used by the JavaScript engine in Safari,” Apple said. “This update addresses the issue by performing additional validation of JavaScript regular expressions.”

IPhone users can wait out the update interval — iTunes automatically checks Apple’s update servers once a week — or retrieve the patches manually by selecting “Check for Update” under the iTunes Help menu and then docking the iPhone to the PC or Mac.

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