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remotely rooting SIM cards


Rooting SIM cards

SIM cards are the de facto trust anchor of mobile devices worldwide. The
cards protect the mobile identity of subscribers, associate devices with
phone numbers, and increasingly store payment credentials, for example in
NFC-enabled phones with mobile wallets.

With over seven billion cards in active use, SIMs may well be the most widely
used security token in the world. Through over-the-air (OTA) updates deployed
via SMS, the cards are even extensible through custom Java software. While
this extensibility is rarely used so far, its existence already poses a
critical hacking risk.

Cracking SIM update keys. OTA commands, such as software updates, are
cryptographically-secured SMS messages, which are delivered directly to the
SIM. While the option exists to use state-of-the-art AES or the somewhat
outdated 3DES algorithm for OTA, many (if not most) SIM cards still rely on
the 70s-era DES cipher. DES keys were shown to be crackable within days using
FPGA clusters, but they can also be recovered much faster by leveraging
rainbow tables similar to those that made GSMâ??s A5/1 cipher breakable by

To derive a DES OTA key, an attacker starts by sending a binary SMS to a
target device. The SIM does not execute the improperly signed OTA command,
but does in many cases respond to the attacker with an error code carrying a
cryptographic signature, once again sent over binary SMS. A rainbow table
resolves this plaintext-signature tuple to a 56-bit DES key within two
minutes on a standard computer.

Deploying SIM malware. The cracked DES key enables an attacker to send
properly signed binary SMS, which download Java applets onto the SIM. Applets
are allowed to send SMS, change voicemail numbers, and query the phone
location, among many other predefined functions. These capabilities alone
provide plenty of potential for abuse.

In principle, the Java virtual machine should assure that each Java applet
only accesses the predefined interfaces. The Java sandbox implementations of
at least two major SIM card vendors, however, are not secure: A Java applet
can break out of its realm and access the rest of the card. This allows for
remote cloning of possibly millions of SIM cards including their mobile
identity (IMSI, Ki) as well as payment credentials stored on the card.

Defenses. The risk of remote SIM exploitation can be mitigated on three

Better SIM cards. Cards need to use state-of-art cryptography with
sufficiently long keys, should not disclose signed plaintexts to attackers,
and must implement secure Java virtual machines. While some cards already
come close to this objective, the years needed to replace vulnerable legacy
cards warrant supplementary defenses.

Handset SMS firewall. One additional protection layer could be anchored in
handsets: Each user should be allowed to decide which sources of binary SMS
to trust and which others to discard. An SMS firewall on the phone would also
address other abuse scenarios including â??silent SMS.â??

In-network SMS filtering. Remote attackers rely on mobile networks to deliver
binary SMS to and from victim phones. Such SMS should only be allowed from a
few known sources, but most networks have not implemented such filtering yet.
â??Home routingâ?? is furthermore needed to increase the protection coverage to
customers when roaming. This would also provide long-requested protection
from remote tracking.

This research will be presented at BlackHat on Jul 31st and at the OHM
hacking camp on Aug 3rd 2013

Questions? â?? [email protected]