Rick Astley Virus Highlights iPhone Security Risk

Dennis Faas's picture

If your iPhone's wallpaper has suddenly changed to a picture of singer 1980's singer sensation Rick Astley, it's not just a prank by a friend. Instead, it's a worm virus that could lead to significant harm.

The problem only affects "jailbroken" handsets, those which have been adapted by the user to allow them to run applications without any restrictions. Note that a jailbroken iPhone is different from an unlocked iPhone, which allows the phone to make calls on any network.

The worm takes advantage of the fact that many people who have jailbroken their phone go on to use a file transfer system known as Secure Shell, but fail to change the iPhone's default password of "alpine". This is a root password, meaning it theoretically gives access to the entire iPhone operating system. One site describes installing Secure Shell without changing the password the same as building an extra back door to your house but leaving it unlocked. (Source: pcworld.com)

Creator Says Virus Not Malicious

So far the virus only appears to have affected phones in Australia, where the virus creator lives. He's a 21-year-old student named Ashley Towns who appears to have created the virus as a warning rather than to cause malicious harm.

The virus is set up so that after changing the wallpaper, it deletes Secure Shell from the phone, meaning it can't fall prey to a repeat attack. However, Towns has published the full code of the virus, meaning malicious hackers could adapt it to cause serious damage.

In notes contained within the code, Towns condemns people who jailbreak their phones without changing their password: "People are stupid and this is to prove it. It's not that hard guys. But hey who cares its only your bank details at stake." (Source: bbc.co.uk)

Worm Follows Cult Fashion

The use of Astley's image is reminiscent of an Internet craze dubbed "rick-rolling" in which people would publish misleading links which, rather than pointing to their claimed destination, took the user to a YouTube video of his 1987 hit "Never Gonna Give You Up".

The worm creates an awkward situation for Apple. On the one hand, reports of iPhones falling prey to viruses are a publicity black eye. On the other, if it's able to get the message across that it only affects jailbroken handsets, the incident may deter future jailbreaking attempts.

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