The findings are based on previous research from Google and Citizen Lab conducted in 2021 which discovered a zero-click, zero-day iOS exploit dubbed “ForcedEntry,” linked to the Israeli NSO Group.
Apple devices and products are known for their advanced security mechanisms, particularly the iPhone and Macbook. However, the latest research reveals that even Apple products aren’t safe from the prying eyes of threat actors.
Researchers at the cybersecurity firm Trellix Advanced Research Center have disclosed details of a newly discovered privilege escalation bug class that, if exploited, could allow an attacker to sweep up call history, messages, and photos from the device.
According to researchers, the bugs allowed cybercriminals to bypass the iOS system’s security protections and execute unauthorized code. The security flaws were ranked as medium to high in terms of security.
Trellix’s vulnerability research director, Doug McKee, stated that although Apple has addressed the issue, the concern is that these vulnerabilities allow bypassing of Apple’s security model at a “fundamental level.”
Apple said the bugs weren’t exploited in the wild before being fixed.
How Was the Bug Discovered?
The findings are based on previous research from Google and Citizen Lab conducted in 2021. The organizations discovered a zero-click, zero-day iOS exploit dubbed “ForcedEntry,” linked to NSO Group.
This was a highly sophisticated exploit found on a Saudi activist’s iPhone and was used for installing Pegasus malware developed by the NSO Group. The same spyware was also found on the iPhones of nine State Department officials in the United States.
This exploit had two key features: first, it tricked the iPhone into opening a malicious PDF disguised as a GIF file. Secondly, it enabled attackers to evade the sandbox that Apple introduced to prevent apps from accessing data from other apps or other parts of the device.
This second feature of ForcedEntry was the basis of Trellix’s research from senior vulnerability researcher Austin Emmitt. A proof-of-concept was released to demonstrate how the bugs could be exploited.
Emmitt discovered a new class of vulnerabilities revolving around the NSPredicate tool that filters code within Apple’s systems. This tool was first exploited in ForcedEntry, as the 2021 research revealed, and Apple introduced new measures to prevent this abuse.
However, the mitigation methods were insufficient, as Trellix researchers found that these methods could also be bypassed since bugs in the NSPredicate class were found in multiple places in macOS and iOS systems.
This includes the Springboard app, which manages the home screen on an iPhone and can access photos, location data, and the camera. After exploiting the bugs, the attacker could access places they could not otherwise invade. Attackers trying to exploit it need to gain an initial foothold into the device.
Vulnerabilities in NSPredicate were discovered in macOS 13.2 and iOS 16.3, and Apple patched them with software updates in January. The company also issued CVEs for these flaws—CVE-2023-23530 and CVE-2023-23531—and released new versions of macOS and iOS.