It’s amazing it took so long. More than 20 years after its initial development, the SIM card has been hacked. A German cryptographer named Karsten Nohl will be presenting findings to that effect at the annual Black Hat computer security conference at the end of the month.
The impact of hacked SIM cards, one of the few stalwarts in the high-tech industry that has not seen a serious exploit, could be monumental. The exploit involves simply sending a specially configured, hidden SMS to the phone, giving the attacker an easy way around that phone’s built-in encryption. Ultimately this would then give the attacker the ability to do all manner of nasty things, from having the phone send pricy for-pay text messages to recording telephone conversations. While some seven billion SIM cards are in use today, Nohl estimated that roughly half a billion mobile devices worldwide would currently be vulnerable to this type of attack.
Fixes are already in the works, but as any IT manager who’s survived an old-fashioned Windows virus onslaught knows, a fix does not necessarily equal a solution. Even if patches are made available, that’s no guarantee they’ll be universally rolled out in a timely fashion. SIM cards can be updated invisibly over the air by network operators, but that poses a secondary problem. Because users have no visibility into whether their phones are vulnerable to the attack or not, wireless customers won’t know whether or not their devices are safe.
For individuals, the risk of someone hijacking your phone and listening in on calls or making phony purchases is bad enough.
For business users, these problems may soon be compounded considerably.
As business data continues to move from the desktop PC to mobile devices, even rank-and-file employees are finding themselves walking around with a mountain of sensitive data in their pocket or purse. Lost and stolen phones have become an epidemic for the corporate world, and solutions to this dilemma have been unbearably slow in presenting themselves. Compound that with the risk that a large number of business devices may also be able to be attacked via a remote exploit and cell phones are looking increasingly like the weak link in any business’s infrastructure.
Let’s say a business does take steps to secure its handsets and ensure that SIM cards are properly patched and safe from attack. What then? Even if businesses correct company-owned devices, plenty of risks are sure to remain, thanks to the rise of BYOD (bring your own device) programs. BYOD, for the uninitiated, is the policy of allowing employees to use their own phone or tablet for work — often in lieu of issuing them a company-owned mobile phone or even a landline. This saves the company money but remains a serious security risk — doubly so given the current news, since BYOD devices can’t be easily patched or protected from a central location.
Finally, as phone-based commerce becomes increasingly popular, this opens up yet another avenue where businesses will face risks. Hackers could theoretically redirect payments or change the amounts involved, potentially leaving merchants high and dry at the end of a transaction.