Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

The Curious Case of Fourteen Bytes

One of the bigger mysteries associated with the hack of Jeff Bezos’ iPhone X is how, exactly, it was breached. A report yesterday by Sheera Frenkel in the New York Times appeared to shed some light on that:

On the afternoon of May 1, 2018, Jeff Bezos received a message on WhatsApp from an account belonging to Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.

The two men had previously communicated using WhatsApp, but Bezos, Amazon’s chief executive, had not expected a message that day — let alone one with a video of Saudi and Swedish flags with Arabic text.

The video, a file of more than 4.4 megabytes, was more than it appeared. Hidden in 14 bytes of that file was a separate bit of code that most likely implanted malware, malicious software, that gave attackers access to Bezos’ entire phone, including his photos and private communications.

The detail attributing the breach to fourteen bytes of malware was entirely new information, and not reported elsewhere. But I’m linking here to the Chicago Tribune’s syndicated copy because the version currently on the Times’ website no longer makes the same specific claim:

The video, a file of more than 4.4 megabytes, was more than it appeared, according to a forensic analysis that Mr. Bezos commissioned and paid for to discover who had hacked his iPhone X. Hidden in that file was a separate bit of code that most likely implanted malware that gave attackers access to Mr. Bezos’ entire phone, including his photos and private communications.

Despite this material change, there is no correction notice at the bottom of the article. The forensic report (PDF) acknowledges that “the file containing the video is slightly larger than the video itself”, but does not cite a specific figure. It does, however, state that the video file is 4.22 MB, not “more than 4.4” as stated in the Times report.

I know this seems ridiculously pedantic, but I want to know how this discrepancy can be explained. The UN press release also does not contain any more specific details. Is this just a weird instance of miscommunications that haven’t been fact-checked? Or is this perhaps news that hasn’t been fully confirmed? For example, is there another forensic report that hasn’t yet been made public?

This matters, I think, because it could suggest a difference between whether the H.264 MP4 video decoder on iOS has a vulnerability, or if it’s something specific to the WhatsApp container. If the former is true, that means that this isn’t just something that WhatsApp users need to watch out for.

It used to be the case that vulnerabilities like these were kept extremely close to the vest and only used on specific high-value targets. But, ever since we found out that China was attacking Uyghur iPhone users broadly, I’m no longer as convinced that not being a prominent individual is enough to avoid being a target.

Update: Ben Somers points out that 4.22 MiB roughly converts to 4.4 MB, which may be the source of that part of the discrepancy. The fourteen bytes are still unaccounted for.

Also, it’s worth mentioning that one reason that I wanted to draw attention to this story is because the Times often fails to post correction notices for online stories that have been updated after publication. I think this practice is ridiculous.

Update: A paragraph later in the story references the fourteen byte mystery, now with more context:

The May 2018 message that contained the innocuous-seeming video file, with a tiny 14-byte chunk of malicious code, came out of the blue, according to the report and additional notes obtained by The New York Times. In the 24 hours after it was sent, Mr. Bezos’ iPhone began sending large amounts of data, which increased approximately 29,000 percent over his normal data usage.

This wasn’t in the story last time I checked. There still isn’t a corrections or updates notice appended to the Times article. Thanks to Lawrence Velázquez for bringing it to my attention.