Apple's AirDrop Vulnerability: China's Exploitation Raises Concerns

The vulnerability in Apple's AirDrop, which enables unauthorized access to users' contact information, has come to light, sparking concerns about privacy and security. This issue was brought to Apple's attention years ago by researchers at Germany's Technical University of Darmstadt, but the company failed to address it. Now, the consequences of this inaction have become apparent as Chinese authorities reportedly used the exploit to track individuals sending "inappropriate information" via AirDrop in the Beijing subway, with the assistance of Wangshendongjian Technology, a Chinese tech firm.

Jan 1, 2024 - 02:58
Jan 15, 2024 - 04:06
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Apple's AirDrop Vulnerability: China's Exploitation Raises Concerns

Unearthing AirDrop's Vulnerability

In 2019, researchers from Technical University of Darmstadt unearthed vulnerabilities in Apple's AirDrop wireless sharing feature. These vulnerabilities allowed attackers to access the phone numbers and email addresses of AirDrop users within close proximity by utilizing a Wi-Fi-capable device. The process involved opening the sharing pane on an iOS or macOS device to acquire this sensitive information. The researchers promptly alerted Apple about these vulnerabilities, but the tech giant took no action. Two years later, the same group proposed a fix for the issue, yet Apple continued to ignore the flaw.

To comprehend the situation better, it's essential to understand how AirDrop functions. AirDrop is a proprietary Apple protocol that facilitates direct wireless file sharing among nearby Apple users. Remarkably, AirDrop operates even when both users are offline, employing a combination of Bluetooth and peer-to-peer Wi-Fi for seamless local wireless sharing.

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Users become vulnerable to this exploit when utilizing AirDrop's "Contacts only" mode. In this mode, AirDrop exclusively accepts messages from users listed in the recipient's contact list. The Darmstadt researchers uncovered that the exchange between the two ends of an AirDrop connection, determining whether both parties are contacts, uses network packets that inadequately protect the privacy of contact data.

Wangshendongjian Technology managed to bypass the hash values related to the sender's device name, email address, and mobile phone number. They achieved this by creating a rainbow table of mobile phone numbers and email accounts, effectively converting cipher text into the original text and revealing the sender's mobile phone number and email account. This outcome aligns precisely with the warnings issued by the TU Darmstadt researchers, who emphasized that AirDrop's hashing method fails to provide privacy-preserving contact discovery, as hash values can be swiftly reversed through techniques like brute-force attacks.

The Broader Implications

News of China successfully exploiting the AirDrop vulnerability has sparked widespread concern, with ramifications reaching Capitol Hill and humanitarian rights circles. Senator Marco Rubio, a prominent figure on the Senate Intelligence Committee, called on Apple to be held accountable for its failure to protect users against security breaches, emphasizing that Beijing could potentially target Apple users seen as opponents. Benjamin Ismail, campaign and advocacy director of Greatfire.org, an organization monitoring internet censorship in China, stressed the need for Apple's transparency in responding to these developments.

However, Apple has thus far remained silent in response to numerous media inquiries regarding this issue.

This incident highlights the critical importance of promptly addressing security vulnerabilities and the potential risks associated with overlooking such concerns. It also underscores the broader challenges posed by the evolving landscape of digital privacy and security in a world where technology is deeply intertwined with our daily lives.