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A Hardware Privacy Monitor for iPhones

Andrew “bunnie” Huang and Edward Snowden have designed a hardware device that attaches to an iPhone and monitors it for malicious surveillance activities, even in instances where the phone’s operating system has been compromised. They call it an Introspection Engine, and their use model is a journalist who is concerned about government surveillance:

Our introspection engine is designed with the following goals in mind:

  1. Completely open source and user-inspectable (“You don’t have to trust us”)

  2. Introspection operations are performed by an execution domain completely separated from the phone”s CPU (“don’t rely on those with impaired judgment to fairly judge their state”)

  3. Proper operation of introspection system can be field-verified (guard against “evil maid” attacks and hardware failures)

  4. Difficult to trigger a false positive (users ignore or disable security alerts when there are too many positives)

  5. Difficult to induce a false negative, even with signed firmware updates (“don’t trust the system vendor” — state-level adversaries with full cooperation of system vendors should not be able to craft signed firmware updates that spoof or bypass the introspection engine)

  6. As much as possible, the introspection system should be passive and difficult to detect by the phone’s operating system (prevent black-listing/targeting of users based on introspection engine signatures)

  7. Simple, intuitive user interface requiring no specialized knowledge to interpret or operate (avoid user error leading to false negatives; “journalists shouldn’t have to be cryptographers to be safe”)

  8. Final solution should be usable on a daily basis, with minimal impact on workflow (avoid forcing field reporters into the choice between their personal security and being an effective journalist)

This looks like fantastic work, and they have a working prototype.

Of course, this does nothing to stop all the legitimate surveillance that happens over a cell phone: location tracking, records of who you talk to, and so on.

BoingBoing post.

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Hacking a Phone Through a Replacement Touchscreen

Researchers demonstrated a really clever hack: they hid malware in a replacement smart phone screen. The idea is that you would naively bring your smart phone in for repair, and the repair shop would install this malicious screen without your knowledge. The malware is hidden in touchscreen controller software, which is trusted by the phone.

The concern arises from research that shows how replacement screens — one put into a Huawei Nexus 6P and the other into an LG G Pad 7.0 — can be used to surreptitiously log keyboard input and patterns, install malicious apps, and take pictures and e-mail them to the attacker. The booby-trapped screens also exploited operating system vulnerabilities that bypassed key security protections built into the phones. The malicious parts cost less than $10 and could easily be mass-produced. Most chilling of all, to most people, the booby-trapped parts could be indistinguishable from legitimate ones, a trait that could leave many service technicians unaware of the maliciousness. There would be no sign of tampering unless someone with a background in hardware disassembled the repaired phone and inspected it.

Academic paper. BoingBoing post.

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Criminals are Now Exploiting SS7 Flaws to Hack Smartphone Two-Factor Authentication Systems

I’ve previously written about the serious vulnerabilities in the SS7 phone routing system. Basically, the system doesn’t authenticate messages. Now, criminals are using it to hack smartphone-based two-factor authentication systems:

In short, the issue with SS7 is that the network believes whatever you tell it. SS7 is especially used for data-roaming: when a phone user goes outside their own provider’s coverage, messages still need to get routed to them. But anyone with SS7 access, which can be purchased for around 1000 Euros according to The Süddeutsche Zeitung, can send a routing request, and the network may not authenticate where the message is coming from.

That allows the attacker to direct a target’s text messages to another device, and, in the case of the bank accounts, steal any codes needed to login or greenlight money transfers (after the hackers obtained victim passwords).

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Stealing Browsing History Using Your Phone’s Ambient Light Sensor

There has been a flurry of research into using the various sensors on your phone to steal data in surprising ways. Here’s another: using the phone’s ambient light sensor to detect what’s on the screen. It’s a proof of concept, but the paper’s general conclusions are correct:

There is a lesson here that designing specifications and systems from a privacy engineering perspective is a complex process: decisions about exposing sensitive APIs to the web without any protections should not be taken lightly. One danger is that specification authors and browser vendors will base decisions on overly general principles and research results which don’t apply to a particular new feature (similarly to how protections on gyroscope readings might not be sufficient for light sensor data).

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Capturing Pattern-Lock Authentication

Interesting research — “Cracking Android Pattern Lock in Five Attempts“:

Abstract: Pattern lock is widely used as a mechanism for authentication and authorization on Android devices. In this paper, we demonstrate a novel video-based attack to reconstruct Android lock patterns from video footage filmed u sing a mobile phone camera. Unlike prior attacks on pattern lock, our approach does not require the video to capture any content displayed on the screen. Instead, we employ a computer vision algorithm to track the fingertip movements to infer the pattern. Using the geometry information extracted from the tracked fingertip motions, our approach is able to accurately identify a small number of (often one) candidate patterns to be tested by an adversary. We thoroughly evaluated our approach using 120 unique patterns collected from 215 independent users, by applying it to reconstruct patterns from video footage filmed using smartphone cameras. Experimental results show that our approach can break over 95% of the patterns in five attempts before the device is automatically locked by the Android system. We discovered that, in contrast to many people’s belief, complex patterns do not offer stronger protection under our attacking scenarios. This is demonstrated by the fact that we are able to break all but one complex patterns (with a 97.5% success rate) as opposed to 60% of the simple patterns in the first attempt. Since our threat model is common in day-to-day lives, our work calls for the community to revisit the risks of using Android pattern lock to protect sensitive information.

News article.

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International Phone Fraud Tactics

This article outlines two different types of international phone fraud. The first can happen when you call an expensive country like Cuba:

My phone call never actually made it to Cuba. The fraudsters make money because the last carrier simply pretends that it connected to Cuba when it actually connected me to the audiobook recording. So it charges Cuban rates to the previous carrier, which charges the preceding carrier, which charges the preceding carrier, and the costs flow upstream to my telecom carrier. The fraudsters siphoning money from the telecommunications system could be anywhere in the world.

The second happens when phones are forced to dial international premium-rate numbers:

The crime ring wasn’t interested in reselling the actual [stolen] phone hardware so much as exploiting the SIM cards. By using all the phones to call international premium numbers, similar to 900 numbers in the U.S. that charge extra, they were making hundreds of thousands of dollars. Elsewhere — Pakistan and the Philippines being two common locations — organized crime rings have hacked into phone systems to get those phones to constantly dial either international premium numbers or high-rate countries like Cuba, Latvia, or Somalia.

Why is this kind of thing so hard to stop?

Stamping out international revenue share fraud is a collective action problem. “The only way to prevent IRFS fraud is to stop the money. If everyone agrees, if no one pays for IRFS, that disrupts it,” says Yates. That would mean, for example, the second-to-last carrier would refuse to pay the last carrier that routed my call to the audiobooks and the third-to-last would refuse to pay the second-to-last, and so on, all the way back up the chain to my phone company. But when has it been easy to get so many companies to do the same thing? It costs money to investigate fraud cases too, and some companies won’t think it’s worth the trade off. “Some operators take a very positive approach toward fraud management. Others see it as cost of business and don’t put a lot of resources or systems in to manage it,” says Yates.

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Hardware Bit-Flipping Attacks in Practice

A year and a half ago, I wrote about hardware bit-flipping attacks, which were then largely theoretical. Now, they can be used to root Android phones:

The breakthrough has the potential to make millions of Android phones vulnerable, at least until a security fix is available, to a new form of attack that seizes control of core parts of the operating system and neuters key security defenses. Equally important, it demonstrates that the new class of exploit, dubbed Rowhammer, can have malicious and far-reaching effects on a much wider number of devices than was previously known, including those running ARM chips.

Previously, some experts believed Rowhammer attacks that altered specific pieces of security-sensitive data weren’t reliable enough to pose a viable threat because exploits depended on chance hardware faults or advanced memory-management features that could be easily adapted to repel the attacks. But the new proof-of-concept attack developed by an international team of academic researchers is challenging those assumptions.

An app containing the researchers’ rooting exploit requires no user permissions and doesn’t rely on any vulnerability in Android to work. Instead, their attack exploits a hardware vulnerability, using a Rowhammer exploit that alters crucial bits of data in a way that completely roots name brand Android devices from LG, Motorola, Samsung, OnePlus, and possibly other manufacturers.

[…]

Drammer was devised by many of the same researchers behind Flip Feng Shui, and it adopts many of the same approaches. Still, it represents a significant improvement over Flip Feng Shui because it’s able to alter specific pieces of sensitive-security data using standard memory management interfaces built into the Android OS. Using crucial information about the layout of Android memory chips gleaned from a side channel the researchers discovered in ARM processors, Drammer is able to carry out what the researchers call a deterministic attack, meaning one that can reliably target security-sensitive data. The susceptibility of Android devices to Rowhammer exploits likely signals a similar vulnerability in memory chips used in iPhones and other mobile devices as well.

Here’s the paper.

And here’s the project’s website.

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