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Application sandboxing flaws, which have long plagued the Android OS, were recently discovered on OS X and iOS.
The results were both "surprising" and "dire," according to six researchers from Indiana University, Peking University and Georgia Institute of Technology. The team set out to investigate the effectiveness of app isolation on OS X and iOS and test whether the OSes' unique methods of confining apps and supporting cross-app interactions offered a more secure user environment.
In "Unauthorized Cross-App Resource Access on Mac OS X and iOS", which was submitted to the Cornell University Library in May, the group of researchers led by Luyi Xing of Indiana University found a number of critical vulnerabilities in major cross-app resource-sharing mechanisms and communications channels, as well as unreliable Apple sandbox construction that led to issues including password stealing, container cracking, cross-app communication interception and URL scheme hijacking.
"We completely cracked the keychain service -- used to store passwords and other credentials for different apps -- and sandbox containers on OS X," Xing told The Register, which first reported the story Wednesday. "(We) also identified new weaknesses within the inter-app communication mechanisms on OS X and iOS, which can be used to steal confidential data from Evernote, Facebook and other high-profile apps."
In the attacks the group dubbed unauthorized cross-app resource access or XARA, adversaries can potentially steal passwords from iCloud, Gmail and Chrome, and infiltrate data from 1Password, Evernote, WeChat and other apps.
The researchers built proof-of-concept apps which not only circumvented OS-level protection but also made their way through the App Store vetting process to become readily available to customers.
In their tests, researchers found more than 88.6% of the 1,612 most popular Mac apps and 200 iOS apps were "completely exposed" to XARA.
"Fundamentally," the report reads, "these problems are caused by the lack of app-to-app and app-to-OS authentications."
Xing said the Apple sandbox vulnerabilities were reported to Apple in October 2014, prompting the company to request a six-month grace period to fix this issues. It was only in February, however, that Apple requested an advanced copy of the research, according to the researchers.
Videos posted by Xing demonstrate how malicious apps can be used for password stealing, container cracking/bundle ID attacks, inter-process communication interception and URL scheme hijacking.
Jeff Goldberg of AgileBits, Inc. -- creator of 1Password -- published a blog post Wednesday discussing the threat and how the company has reacted since November.
"Neither we nor Luyi Xing and his team have been able to figure out a completely reliable way to solve this problem," Goldberg wrote. The blog does, however, offer ways to make it more difficult for attackers, including keeping 1Password running and not installing untrusted apps.
While XARA attacks can be hard to execute as they can only be completed by downloading a malicious app through the app store, researchers were able to circumvent the App vetting defenses; it will only be a matter of time until adversaries adopt such strategies.
The researchers built a program that detects exploit attempts; it will be available on the XARA flaws site when ready.
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