Could a text message be used to take over your iPhone?

iPhone screengrab by Andrew Heining

News this week of the "hack of all hacks" for the iPhone had some Apple fans quaking in their New Balances: two security researchers released word that a text message containing a single character could be sent to an iPhone, giving an attacker complete access to the device and its contents.

The attack is set to be demonstrated in a Thursday talk at the Black Hat computer security conference in Las Vegas by Zane Lackey and Luis Mira. Computerworld's Robert McMillan has the details:

The researchers were able to send SMS messages from one phone to another that contained configuration information that would normally originate only on the network's servers, according to a source familiar with the talk, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the matter. The research details security flaws in the way some mobile networks communicate with the devices on the network.

CNET's Elinor Mills got her own demonstration of the exploit, and describes it thus:

While I was talking on the phone to Charlie Miller, his partner, Collin Mulliner, sent me a text message from his phone. One minute I'm talking to Miller and the next minute my phone is dead, and this time it's not AT&T's fault. After a few seconds it came back to life, but I was not able to make or receive calls until I rebooted.

Oh Noes!?

Is the sky falling for iPhone users? Headlines like Forbes's "How to hijack 'every iPhone in the world'" would have them think so. But other stories, like this one from ZDNet, argue that the threat is more theoretical than real, at least at this point.

"This hack works very similarly to the old fashioned DoS (Denial of Service) hacks that have been around for decades, the primary point of differentiation is simply that this one takes place on the iPhone," writes Eric Everson, founder of, a mobile antivirus security solution. He continues:

This attack wherein hundreds (and yes, that is an ā€œsā€ on the end of hundreds) of SMS control messages must be sent to an individual handset, is a hack that is best demonstrated in a controlled environment. To this avail if any one of these hundreds of SMS messages is removed or otherwise deleted from the handset before all the commands are in place, this entire hack is defunct.

Everson added that though the iPhone gets a lot of press, it represents a relatively small share of the mobile phone market. A better target for hackers, he says, is Nokia.

Something seem fishy? Reboot.

Still, you can never be too careful, right? And what if you suspect your phone has been hacked? Without any official word from Apple on a fix (though there have been rumors that one's in the works) the best advice for now is to turn off your phone.

"Rebooting wouldn't be a bad idea," Miller told CNET's Mills. "It would stop all but the most sophisticated attacker. However, it doesn't take but a second to grab all your personal info from the device, and as soon as you turn it back on, the bad guy could attack you again."


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