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Background Monitoring on Non-Jailbroken iOS 7 Devices — and a Mitigation

Background monitoring mobile applications has become a hot topic on mobile devices. Existing reports show that such monitoring can be conducted on jailbroken iOS devices. FireEye mobile security researchers have discovered such vulnerability, and found approaches to bypass Apple's app review process effectively and exploit non-jailbroken iOS 7 successfully. We have been collaborating with Apple on this issue.
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Fig.1 Background Monitoring
We have created a proof-of-concept "monitoring" app on non-jailbroken iOS 7.0.x devices. This “monitoring” app can record all the user touch/press events in the background, including, touches on the screen, home button press, volume button press, and TouchID press, and then this app can send all user events to any remote server, as shown in Fig.1. Potential attackers can use such information to reconstruct every character the victim inputs. Note that the demo exploits the latest 7.0.4 version of iOS system on a non-jailbroken iPhone 5s device successfully. We have verified that the same vulnerability also exists in iOS versions 7.0.5, 7.0.6, and 6.1.x. Based on the findings, potential attackers can either use phishing to mislead the victim to install a malicious/vulnerable app or exploit another remote vulnerability of some app, and then conduct background monitoring.
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Fig.2 Background App Refresh Settings
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Fig.3 Killing An App on iOS7
iOS7 provides settings for "background app refresh". Disabling unnecessary app's background refreshing contributes to preventing the potential background monitoring. However, it can be bypassed. For example, an app can play music in the background without turning on its "background app refresh" switch. Thus a malicious app can disguise itself as a music app to conduct background monitoring. Before Apple fixes this issue, the only way for iOS users to avoid this security risk is to use the iOS task manager to stop the apps from running in the background to prevent potential background monitoring. iOS7 users can press the Home button twice to enter the task manager and see preview screens of apps opened, and then swipe an app up and out of preview to disable unnecessary or suspicious applications running on the background, as shown in Fig.3. We conducted this research independently before we were aware of this recent report. We hope this blog could help users understand and mitigate this threat further. Acknowledgement: Special thanks to Jari Salomaa for his valuable comments and feedback. We also thank Raymond Wei, Dawn Song, and Zheng Bu for their valuable help on writing this blog.