SIMs Pwned With One Message! (Only About A Decade Too Late)

Written by Frank Hayes
July 31st, 2013

We were going to do an in-depth teardown this week of one of the scariest-sounding cyberthreats we’d ever heard of: the ability to take control of a mobile phone just by sending it a carefully crafted malicious text message. The implications for mobile commerce, mobile payments and even in-store use of mobile phones sounded catastrophic for retailers. And based on early media descriptions of the work of Karsten Nohl, a security researcher at SR Labs in Berlin, it looked like a quarter of GSM phones might be at risk.

Then it was more like 10 percent of all phones. Now it turns out that, in the U.S. at least, SIMs that use 56-bit DES encryption—the security weakness that the attack depends on—haven’t been sold for “at least seven years” by T-Mobile, “nearly a decade” by AT&T, and never by Verizon or Sprint. That means there’s still a potential risk to any customer with a decade-old phone, but there’s probably not enough of them to make them worthwhile targets for thieves. That makes Nohl’s talk at Black Hat this week in Las Vegas interesting, but largely academic—which is exactly the way we prefer our cyberthreats.


Comments are closed.


StorefrontBacktalk delivers the latest retail technology news & analysis. Join more than 60,000 retail IT leaders who subscribe to our free weekly email. Sign up today!

Most Recent Comments

Why Did Gonzales Hackers Like European Cards So Much Better?

I am still unclear about the core point here-- why higher value of European cards. Supply and demand, yes, makes sense. But the fact that the cards were chip and pin (EMV) should make them less valuable because that demonstrably reduces the ability to use them fraudulently. Did the author mean that the chip and pin cards could be used in a country where EMV is not implemented--the US--and this mis-match make it easier to us them since the issuing banks may not have as robust anti-fraud controls as non-EMV banks because they assumed EMV would do the fraud prevention for them Read more...
Two possible reasons that I can think of and have seen in the past - 1) Cards issued by European banks when used online cross border don't usually support AVS checks. So, when a European card is used with a billing address that's in the US, an ecom merchant wouldn't necessarily know that the shipping zip code doesn't match the billing code. 2) Also, in offline chip countries the card determines whether or not a transaction is approved, not the issuer. In my experience, European issuers haven't developed the same checks on authorization requests as US issuers. So, these cards might be more valuable because they are more likely to get approved. Read more...
A smart card slot in terminals doesn't mean there is a reader or that the reader is activated. Then, activated reader or not, the U.S. processors don't have apps certified or ready to load into those terminals to accept and process smart card transactions just yet. Don't get your card(t) before the terminal (horse). Read more...
The marketplace does speak. More fraud capacity translates to higher value for the stolen data. Because nearly 100% of all US transactions are authorized online in real time, we have less fraud regardless of whether the card is Magstripe only or chip and PIn. Hence, $10 prices for US cards vs $25 for the European counterparts. Read more...
@David True. The European cards have both an EMV chip AND a mag stripe. Europeans may generally use the chip for their transactions, but the insecure stripe remains vulnerable to skimming, whether it be from a false front on an ATM or a dishonest waiter with a handheld skimmer. If their stripe is skimmed, the track data can still be cloned and used fraudulently in the United States. If European banks only detect fraud from 9-5 GMT, that might explain why American criminals prefer them over American bank issued cards, who have fraud detection in place 24x7. Read more...

Our apologies. Due to legal and security copyright issues, we can't facilitate the printing of Premium Content. If you absolutely need a hard copy, please contact customer service.