News / Science & Technology

UN Warns on Mobile Cybersecurity Bugs to Prevent Attacks

A woman holds up a SIM card, which she won in a June lottery, in Rangoon, Burma, June 24, 2013. A woman holds up a SIM card, which she won in a June lottery, in Rangoon, Burma, June 24, 2013.
x
A woman holds up a SIM card, which she won in a June lottery, in Rangoon, Burma, June 24, 2013.
A woman holds up a SIM card, which she won in a June lottery, in Rangoon, Burma, June 24, 2013.
Reuters
A United Nations group that advises nations on cybersecurity plans to send out an alert about significant vulnerabilities in mobile phone technology that could potentially enable hackers to remotely attack at least half a billion phones.

The bug, discovered by German firm, allows hackers to remotely gain control of and also clone certain mobile SIM cards.

Hackers could use compromised SIMs to commit financial crimes or engage in electronic espionage, according to Berlin's Security Research Labs, which will describe the vulnerabilities at the Black Hat hacking conference that opens in Las Vegas on July 31.

The U.N.'s Geneva-based International Telecommunications Union, which has reviewed the research, described it as "hugely significant."

"These findings show us where we could be heading in terms of cybersecurity risks," ITU Secretary General Hamadoun Touré told Reuters.

He said the agency would notify telecommunications regulators and other government agencies in nearly 200 countries about the potential threat and also reach out to hundreds of mobile companies, academics and other industry experts.

A spokeswoman for the GSMA, which represents nearly 800 mobile operators worldwide, said it also reviewed the research.

"We have been able to consider the implications and provide guidance to those network operators and SIM vendors that may be impacted," said GSMA spokeswoman Claire Cranton.

Nicole Smith, a spokeswoman for Gemalto NV, the world's biggest maker of SIM cards, said her company supported GSMA's response.

"Our policy is to refrain from commenting on details relating to our customers' operations," she said.

Becoming the SIM

Cracking SIM cards has long been the Holy Grail of hackers because the tiny devices are located in phones and allow operators to identify and authenticate subscribers as they use networks.

Karsten Nohl, the chief scientist who led the research team and will reveal the details at Black Hat, said the hacking only works on SIMs that use an old encryption technology known as DES. The technology is still used on at least one out of eight SIMs, or a minimum of 500 million phones, according to Nohl.

The ITU estimates some 6 billion mobile phones are in use worldwide. It plans to work with the industry to identify how to protect vulnerable devices from attack, Touré said.

Once a hacker copies a SIM, it can be used to make calls and send text messages impersonating the owner of the phone, said Nohl, who has a doctorate in computer engineering from the University of Virginia.

"We become the SIM card. We can do anything the normal phone users can do," Nohl said in a phone interview. "If you have a MasterCard number or PayPal data on the phone, we get that too."

IPhone, Android, BlackBerry

The mobile industry has spent several decades defining common identification and security standards for SIMs to protect data for mobile payment systems and credit card numbers. SIMs are also capable of running apps.

Nohl said Security Research Labs found mobile operators in many countries whose phones were vulnerable, but declined to identify them. He said mobile phone users in Africa could be among the most vulnerable because banking is widely done via mobile payment systems with credentials stored on SIMs.

All types of phones are vulnerable, including iPhones from Apple Inc, phones that run Google Inc's Android software and BlackBerry Ltd smartphones, he said.

BlackBerry's director of security response and threat analysis, Adrian Stone, said in a statement that his company proposed new SIM card standards last year to protect against the types of attacks described by Nohl, which the GSMA has adopted and advised members to implement.

Apple and Google declined comment.

CTIA, a U.S. mobile industry trade group based in Washington, D.C., said the new research likely posed no immediate threat.

"We understand the vulnerability and are working on it," said CTIA Vice President John Marinho. "This is not what hackers are focused on. This does not seem to be something they are exploiting."

You May Like

Egypt's Suez Canal Dreams Tempered by Continued Unrest

Seen as a potential driver of recovery, Cairo’s plan to expand waterway had been raising hopes to give country much needed economic boost More

Ebola Maternity Ward in Sierra Leone First of its Kind

Country already had one of world's highest maternal mortality rates before Ebola arrived, virus has added even more complications to health care More

Malaysia Flight 370 Disappearance Ruled Accident

Aircraft disappeared on March 8, 2014; with ruling, families of 239 passengers and crew can now seek compensation from airline More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Groundbreaking Hand-Painted Documentary About Van Gogh in Productioni
X
George Putic
January 29, 2015 9:43 PM
The troubled life of the famous 19th century Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh has been told through many books and films, but never in the way a group of filmmakers now intends to do. "Loving Vincent " will be the first ever feature-length film made of animated hand-painted images, done in the style of the late artist. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Groundbreaking Hand-Painted Documentary About Van Gogh in Production

The troubled life of the famous 19th century Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh has been told through many books and films, but never in the way a group of filmmakers now intends to do. "Loving Vincent " will be the first ever feature-length film made of animated hand-painted images, done in the style of the late artist. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Rock-Consuming Organisms Alter Views of Life Processes

Scientists thought they knew much about how life works, until a discovery more than two decades ago challenged conventional beliefs. Scientists found that there are organisms that breathe rocks. And it is only recently that the scientific community is accepting that there are organisms that could get energy out of rocks. Correspondent Elizabeth Lee reports.
Video

Video Paris Attacks Highlight Global Weapons Black Market

As law enforcement officials piece together how the Paris and Belgian terror cells carried out their recent attacks, questions are being asked about how they obtained military grade assault weapons - which are illegal in the European Union. As VOA's Jeff Swicord reports, experts say there is a very active worldwide black market for these weapons, and criminals and terrorists are buying.
Video

Video Activists Accuse China of Targeting Religious Freedom

The U.S.-based Chinese religious rights group ChinaAid says 2014 was the worst year for religious freedom in China since the end of the Cultural Revolution. As Ye Fan reports, activists say Beijing has been tightening religious controls ever since Chinese leader Xi Jinping came to office. Hu Wei narrates.
Video

Video Super Bowl Ads Compete for Eyes on TV, Web

Super Bowl Sunday (Feb. 1) is about more than just the NFL's American football championship and big parties to watch the game. Viewers also tune in for the world famous commercials that send Facebook and Twitter abuzz. Daniela Schrier reports on the social media rewards for America’s priciest advertising.
Video

Video Theologians Cast Doubt on Morality of Drone Strikes

In 2006, stirred by photos of U.S. soldiers mistreating Iraqi prisoners, a group of American faith leaders and academics launched the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. It played an important role in getting Congress to investigate, and the president to ban, torture. VOA's Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Freedom on Decline Worldwide, Report Says

The state of global freedom declined for the ninth consecutive year in 2014, according to global watchdog Freedom House's annual report released Wednesday. VOA's William Gallo has more.
Video

Video MRI Seems to Help Diagnose Prostate Cancer, Preliminary Study Shows

Just as with mammography used to detect breast cancer, there's a lot of controversy about tests used to diagnose prostate cancer. Fortunately, a new study shows doctors may now have a more reliable way to diagnose prostate cancer for high risk patients. More from VOA's Carol Pearson.
Video

Video Smartphones About to Make Leap, Carry Basic Senses

Long-distance communication contains mostly sounds and pictures - for now. But scientists in Britain say they are close to creating additions for our smartphones that will make it possible to send taste, smell and even a basic touch. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Former Sudan 'Lost Boy' Becomes Chess Master in NYC

In the mid-1980’s, thousands of Sudanese boys escaped the country's civil war by walking for weeks, then months and finally for more than a year, up to 1,500 kilometers across three countries. The so-called Lost Boys of the Sudan had little time for games. But one of them later mastered the game of chess, and now teaches it to children in the New York area. VOA’s Bernard Shusman in New York has his story.
Video

Video NASA Monitors Earth’s Vital Signs From Space

The U.S. space agency, NASA, is wrapping up its busiest 12-month period in more than a decade, with three missions launched in 2014 and two this month, one in early January and the fifth scheduled for January 29. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, the instruments being lifted into orbit are focused on Earth’s vital life support systems and how they are responding to a warmer planet.
Video

Video Crowded Republican Presidential Field Off to Early Start for 2016

It seems early, but the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign is already heating up. Though no one has officially announced a candidacy, several potential Republican contenders have been busy speaking to conservative groups about making a White House run next year. Many of the possible contenders are critical of the Obama administration’s foreign policy record. VOA national correspondent Jim Malone reports.

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More

All About America

AppleAndroid