Apple blames leaked nude celebrity photos on ‘targeted attack’

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3 September 2014 | 0

A targeted attack focused on user names, passwords and security questions of Apple accounts gave hackers access to nude photos of celebrities that were then leaked over the weekend on the Internet, the company said Tuesday.

None of the cases of leaked photos resulted from a breach in any of its cloud systems including iCloud or Find my iPhone, the company said in a statement.

“We are continuing to work with law enforcement to help identify the criminals involved,” Apple said. “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.”

Several media reported 1 September that the hackers might have exploited a flaw in Apple’s Find My iPhone service that allowed an attacker to try an unlimited number of passwords until the right one was found. Apple has since fixed the vulnerability that enabled the so-called brute-force attack.

Other celebrities whose privacy was violated included Kate Upton, Kelly Brook, Kim Kardashian, Kirsten Dunst, Mary Elisabeth Winstead, Ariana Grande and Victoria Justice. The breach is under investigation by the FBI.

The photos were posted on the image bulletin board 4chan, which is used to post and discuss a wide variety of pictures from Japanese anime and animals to pornography and gore. The hackers asked for payment in bitcoin to view the photos.

Some of the nude pictures were found to be fake. Grande said on Twitter that the photos of her were “completely fake,” while Justice tweeted “so called nudes of me are FAKE people. Let me nip this in the bud right now pun intended.”

Suspicion over the identity of the leaker fell on 27-year-old Atlanta, Georgia resident Bryan ‘BluntMastermind’ Hamade. Hamade tried to sell some of the stolen images through the website 4chan in exchange for the cryptocurrency bitcoin but was quickly tracked down by users. He denies being responsible for harvesting the pictures, crediting another 4chan user who goes by the handle ‘OriginalGuy’.

According to reports, OriginalGuy is sitting on a stash of 423 images and is looking for bitcoin donations before he releases any further pictures.

As to how the credentials were stolen, experts say it could have been through an e-mail phishing attack that tricked the celebrities into inputting their usernames and passwords on a fake login page.

If the attackers knew the victims’ e-mail addresses, then the criminals could have used Apple’s “I forgot my password” link, assuming the celebrities did not have two-factor authentication set up for iCloud, Trend Micro said in a blog post.

As to how sensitive data got on iCloud to begin with is understandable, because Apple’s iPhone saves photos to the service by default. Rivals do the same. Google’s Android saves photos on Google+ and Microsoft’s Windows Phone to OneDrive.

To bolster security in general when cloud services are involved, it’s best to use a unique password for every site and choosing security questions only known to the user and taking advantage of two-factor authentication whenever it is offered.

Also, because no cloud service is 100% safe, experts recommend that people avoid storing potentially embarrassing photos.

Without the added layer of protection, the attackers would have received a “security question” instead and the answer may have been available through a Web search.

Another possibility is the celebrities reused their credentials on other sites that were less secure than iCloud and more easily compromised.

The company advised users of its cloud software to use a strong password and enable two-step verification, a process that requires users to type in a numerical code sent to their mobile device after they’ve entered their user name and password.

IDG News Service and TechCentral Reporters

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