For years, Apple has hardened the security systems on iPhones and Macs. But no company is immune from such issues. Research reveals a new class of bugs that can affect Apple’s iPhone and Mac operating systems and if exploited could allow an attacker to sweep up your messages, photos, and call history.
Researchers from security firm Trellix’s Advanced Research Center are today publishing details of a bug that could allow criminal hackers to break out of Apple’s security protections and run their own unauthorized code. The team says the security flaws they found—which they rank as medium to high severity—bypass protections Apple had put in place to protect users.
“The key thing here is the vulnerabilities break Apple’s security model at a fundamental level,” says Doug McKee, director of vulnerability research at Trellix. McKee says that finding the new bug class means researchers and Apple will potentially be able to find more similar bugs and improve overall security protections. Apple has fixed the bugs the company found, and there is no evidence they were exploited.
Trellix’s findings build on previous work by Google and Citizen Lab, a University of Toronto research facility. In 2021, the two organizations discovered ForcedEntry, a zero-click, zero-day iOS exploit that was linked to Israeli spyware maker NSO Group. (The exploit, described as highly sophisticated, was found on the iPhone of a Saudi activist and used to install NSO’s Pegasus malware.)
Analysis of ForcedEntry showed it involved two key parts. The first tricked an iPhone into opening a malicious PDF that was disguised as a GIF. The second part allowed attackers to escape Apple’s sandbox, which keeps apps from accessing data stored by other apps and from accessing other parts of the device. Trellix’s research, by senior vulnerability researcher Austin Emmitt, focuses on that second part and ultimately used the flaws he found to bypass the sandbox.
Specifically, Emmitt found a class of vulnerabilities that revolve around NSPredicate, a tool that can filter code within Apple’s systems. NSPredicate was first abused in ForcedEntry, and as a result of that research in 2021, Apple introduced new ways to stop the abuse. However, those don’t appear to have been enough. “We discovered that these new mitigations could be bypassed,” Trellix says in a blog post outlining the details of its research.
McKee explains that the bugs within this new NSPredicate class existed in multiple places across macOS and iOS, including within Springboard, the app that manages the iPhone’s home screen and can access location data, photos, and the camera. Once the bugs are exploited, the attacker can access areas that are meant to be closed off. A proof-of-concept video published by Trellix shows how the vulnerabilities can be exploited.
The new class of bugs “brings a lens to an area that people haven’t been researching before because they didn’t know it existed,” McKee says. “Especially with that backdrop of ForcedEntry because somebody at that sophistication level already was leveraging a bug in this class.”
Crucially, any attacker trying to exploit these bugs would require an initial foothold into someone’s device. They would need to have found a way in before being able to abuse the NSPredicate system. (The existence of a vulnerability doesn’t mean that it has been exploited.)
Apple patched the NSPredicate vulnerabilities Trellix found in its macOS 13.2 and iOS 16.3 software updates, which were released in January. Apple has also issued CVEs for the vulnerabilities that were discovered: CVE-2023-23530 and CVE-2023-23531. Since Apple addressed these vulnerabilities, it has also released newer versions of macOS and iOS. These included security fixes for a bug that was being exploited on people’s devices. Make sure you update your iPhone, iPad, and Mac each time a new version of the operating system becomes available.