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.
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.
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."

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