The hackers, who spoke at the Hack in the Box security conference in Kuala Lumpur, are famous for “jailbreaking” the iPhone’s software, the term for using combinations of exploits to allow the installation of unauthorized software. Apple dislikes the practice, which is legal in the U.S. but can void warranties for modified devices.
The release of a new jailbreak is highly anticipated among the select group of iPhone users who resent the company’s careful gatekeeping of applications it allows in its App Store.
But the process for creating a jailbreak has become much more difficult with each iteration of Apple’s iPhone software, and many of the old tricks used to create jailbreak software in the past simply don’t work anymore. French hacker Cyril, known by his Twitter handle “@pod2g,” admitted that iOS6 so far has him stumped.
“At the moment, I’m kind of stuck … but it could change in a week,” said Cyril. “It’s luck, I think.”
It’s more than luck: creating a jailbreak is a highly technical, skillful process, and one that requires hours and hours of testing. Cyril spoke on the panel with David “@planetbeing” Wang and another famed broad-shouldered hacker who goes by pseudonym “@Musclenerd” on Twitter.
Wang said during the panel that the group has a couple of kernel bugs in its back pocket, which could be used to create a jailbreak. The problem is there isn’t just one key to Apple’s locked door: often, many different exploits are needed in order to create a successful jailbreak.
“We still have a few tricks up our sleeves,” Wang said.
After the panel, Musclenerd said the work done on the jailbreak so far is like a delicate houes of cards, he said.
“We think we have something that’s working under a certain set of conditions.” But before the final jailbreak is released, “it’s a very technical, very boring set of steps” that need to be taken to make a more refined user experience.
“The overall technique works,” he said. “We think we have the flow for it.”
Also appearing was Mark Dowd, founder of Azimuth Security, who has done extensive analysis of the iPhone’s “kernel,” the term for the core code of an operating system.
On Wednesday, Dowd and his colleague Tarjei Mandt successfully installed Cydia, an app store for unauthorized iPhone applications, on an iOS6 device using a kernel-mode exploit. They didn’t use a method that could be applicable for the jailbreaking effort, however: Azimuth used its own custom-designed debugging application installed on an iPhone to deliver the kernel exploit, Dowd said.
Overall, Dowd and Mandt concluded that Apple has mitigated many weaknesses with iOS6, which makes its kernel much harder to exploit.
“All the previous techniques that have been used have basically been made for the most part useless,” Dowd said. “But there’s still room to move and its still possible to exploit the kernel in iOS6, but the bar has definitely been raised.”
But all are attracted to the challenge.
“It’s very engrossing,” Wang said. “It’s kind of like doing a very complicated Sudoku or a crossword but it’s like 10 times harder. It’s just entertaining to be able to use your brain in that way. It’s really the only reason I do it.”
Cyril remained positive about the eventual outcome: “I’m still confident we can find something in the next few weeks.”