Are Apple iOS, OS X flaws really backdoors for spies?

The question is now being asked at analyst and security specialist level

Two recently-discovered flaws in Apple iOS and Mac OS X have security experts openly asking whether the software vulnerabilities represent backdoors inserted for purposes of cyber-espionage. There's no clear answer so far, but it just shows that anxiety about state-sponsored surveillance is running high.

"One line of code - was it an accident or enemy action? I don't know, but it's the kind of bug I'd put in," remarked Bruce Schneier, chief technology officer at Co3 Systems, about the flaw in Apple OS X SSL encryption that was revealed last week. Schneier, a cryptography expert, alluded to the Apple SSL flaw during his presentation on government surveillance Tuesday at the RSA Conference in San Francisco. The point, he says, is that the U.S National Security Agency as well as other governments involved in aggressive mass surveillance are going to take any means necessary, including finding ways to put backdoors into commercial products, such as by code tampering.

+ Also on Network World: Apple encryption mistake puts many desktop applications at risk | New iOS flaw increases risk of spying on enterprises +

Security vendor FireEye revealed yet another Apple software flaw that it says allows for key-logging of iOS devices such as iPhones. Was this just a simple coding mistake or something more sinister, such as a backdoor purposefully put into iOS 7.0?

"We have no evidence but we suggest this is a possibility," said Tao Wei, senior staff research scientist at FireEye, which discovered the vulnerability associated with non-jailbroken iOS 7.0 devices.

The tech industry is raising this issue more often in the light of the Edward Snowden revelations of the past year that indicated the US government, through the NSA, does pursue placing backdoors in products when it can, however it can. In his keynote address at the RSA Conference, RSA executive chairman Art Coviello acknowledged this indeed is what appears to have happened in terms of a crypto algorithm created by the NSA that was included in an RSA encryption-toolkit product. The NSA exploited "its position of trust," he said.

But in his presentation, Schneier emphasized that it isn't just US government surveillance that needs to be considered. He noted countries like Russia and China are also in the surveillance game.

"We've already seen China doing the same things NSA did," he pointed out, saying the world now is basically stuck in a bad situation. "If someone's going to spy on you, better the US than Russia. I hate that bit and I wish it wasn't so."

But he concluded the situation now calls for individuals and the high-tech industry to simply keep fighting back against government mass surveillance by demanding it end.

Ellen Messmer is senior editor at Network World, an IDG website, where she covers news and technology trends related to information security. Twitter: MessmerE. E-mail: emessmer@nww.com

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