iCloud or not iCloud: What Really Happened in the Nude Selfie Breach?

You’ve seen it on the internet, even on TV news shows: a number of A-list celebrities had nude selfies swiped from their phones, or their iCloud accounts. Initial thoughts pointed to iCloud, since an exploit was released a couple of days before the photos leaked which targeted Find My iPhone, part of iCloud. This exploit found that Find My iPhone wasn’t rate limited; that it didn’t block users after a certain number of failed password attempts. So the exploit used a list of the 500 most commonly used passwords, and tried them against any Apple ID. If your password was weak, well, you’d get owned. Apple patched iCloud to fix this issue two days later.

But Apple came out with a public statement, saying, “After more than 40 hours of investigation, we have discovered that certain celebrity accounts were compromised by a very targeted attack on user names, passwords and security questions, a practice that has become all too common on the Internet. None of the cases we have investigated has resulted from any breach in any of Apple’s systems including iCloud® or Find my iPhone. We are continuing to work with law enforcement to help identify the criminals involved.”

So, who to believe? Some stars jumped the gun, relying on sketchy media reports suggesting that Apple was to blame, and cast aspersion – well, pizza turd – on the company:

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But evidence suggests that if iCloud was to blame for some of these breaches, it was not the case for all of them. Some of the stars claim the photos are fakes, while others point out that they don’t use iPhones. According to Apple, their iCloud security questions – the ones you answer to reset a forgotten password – were too easy to figure out. (Though I haven’t seen any suggestions that any of these stars found themselves locked out of their accounts, which would have happened if their passwords were reset.)

There’s lots of speculation, and one of the more interesting theories comes from Boris Gorin of FireLayers. As PC World reports, Gorin said, “The images leaked have been gradually appearing on several boards on the net prior to the post at 4chan—making it reasonable to believe they were not part of a single hack, but of several compromises that occurred over time.”

The PC World article goes on to say:

“Gorin shared a theory the celebrities may have been hacked while connected to an open public Wi-Fi network at the Emmy Awards. If they accessed their personal iCloud accounts, attackers connected to that network would have been able to intercept and capture the username and password credentials. That’s not a security flaw with iCloud and having a strong or complex password wouldn’t offer protection against transmitting that password in clear text on a public Wi-Fi network.”

So we’re stuck in a he-said-she-said loop. In this corner, Apple is saying that these people were targeted by password-reset hacks, which depended on weak security questions. Yet none of the celebrities have said that they found anything amiss when trying to log into anything with their phones or computers. (Of course, they may not want to admit that.) And in that corner, security researchers are looking at old-school man-in-the-middle hacks on public wifi networks.

What seems likely is that, as Gorin says, these were images that were slowly leaked, and that one person decided to dump all at once, to suggest that they all come from the same exploit or hack. And if so, why? Should one speculate that there is a link between this photo dump and Apple’s new product event next week? That, perhaps, a competitor contracted with some black-hat hackers to try and get Apple to have some egg on their face; or some pizza turd?

Put your tinfoil hat on, dear reader. We will probably never know the answer to this one.

One suggestion to the celebrities reading this article (there might be one or two): you have people who tell you what to say and what to wear; find someone to tell you how to keep your personal data secure. It’s not that complicated.

Update: We now know much more about this breach. There was no one single incident grabbing all the photos, a number of techniques were used, from simple figuring out the answers to security questions to forensic software, which anyone can buy for $400 (or simply torrent). Part of the fault is Apple’s, for those accounts that were accessed using the brute-force script, but not all of the accounts whose photos have been leaked were accessed in that manner.