Safari and iOS users: Your browsing activity is being leaked in real time

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For the past four months, Apple’s iOS and iPadOS devices and Safari browser have violated one of the Internet’s most sacrosanct security policies. The violation results from a bug that leaks user identities and browsing activity in real time.
The same-origin policy is a foundational security mechanism that forbids documents, scripts, or other content loaded from one origin—meaning the protocol, domain name, and port of a given webpage or app—from interacting with resources from other origins. Without this policy, malicious sites—say, badguy.example.com—could access login credentials for Google or another trusted site when it’s open in a different browser window or tab.
Since September’s release of Safari 15 and iOS and iPadOS 15, this policy has been broken wide open, research published late last week found. As a demo site graphically reveals, it’s trivial for one site to learn the domains of sites open in other tabs or windows, as well as user IDs and other identifying information associated with the other sites.
“The fact that database names leak across different origins is an obvious privacy violation,” wrote Martin Bajanik, a software engineer at FingerprintJS, a startup that makes a device identification interface for anti-fraud purposes. He continued:
It lets arbitrary websites learn what websites the user visits in different tabs or windows. This is possible because database names are typically unique and website-specific. Moreover, we observed that in some cases, websites use unique user-specific identifiers in database names. This means that authenticated users can be uniquely and precisely identified.
Attacks work on Macs running Safari 15 and on any browser running on iOS or iPadOS 15. As the demo shows, safarileaks.com is able to detect the presence of more than 20 websites—Google Calendar, YouTube, Twitter, and Bloomberg among them—open in other tabs or windows. With more work, a real-world attacker could likely find hundreds or thousands of sites or webpages that can be detected.
When users are logged in to one of these sites, the vulnerability can be abused to reveal the visit and, in many cases, identifying information in real time. When logged in to a Google account open elsewhere, for instance, the demo site can obtain the internal identifier Google uses to identify each account. Those identifiers can usually be used to recognize the account holder.
The leak is the result of the way the Webkit browser engine implements IndexedDB, a programming interface supported by all major browsers. It holds large amounts of data and works by creating databases when a new site is visited. Tabs or windows that run in the background can continually query the IndexedDB API for available databases. This allows one site to learn in real time what other websites a user is visiting.
Websites can also open any website in an iframe or pop-up window in order to trigger an IndexedDB-based leak for that specific site. By embedding the iframe or popup into its HTML code, a site can open another site in order to cause an IndexedDB-based leak for the site.
“Every time a website interacts with a database, a new (empty) database with the same name is created in all other active frames, tabs, and windows within the same browser session,” Bajanik wrote. “Windows and tabs usually share the same session, unless you switch to a different profile, in Chrome for example, or open a private window.”
Bajanik said he notified Apple of the vulnerability in late November, and as of publication time, it still had not been fixed in either Safari or the company’s mobile OSes. Apple representatives didn’t respond to an email asking if or when it would release a patch. As of Monday, Apple engineers had merged potential fixes and marked Bajanik’s report as resolved. End users, however, won’t be protected until the Webkit fix is incorporated into Safari 15 and iOS and iPadOS 15.
For now, people should be wary when using Safari for desktop or any browser running on iOS or iPadOS. This isn’t especially helpful for iPhone or iPad users, and in many cases, there’s little or no consequence of browsing activities being leaked. In other situations, however, the specific sites visited and the order in which they were accessed can say a lot.
“The only real protection is to update your browser or OS once the issue is resolved by Apple,” Bajanik wrote. “In the meantime, we hope this article will raise awareness of this issue.”
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