Security Vulnerabilities in Cell Phone Systems

Good essay on the inherent vulnerabilities in the cell phone standards and the market barriers to fixing them. So far, industry and policymakers have largely dragged their feet when it comes to blocking cell-site simulators and SS7 attacks. Senator Ron Wyden, one of the few lawmakers vocal about this issue, sent a letter in August encouraging the Department of Justice…

Good essay on the inherent vulnerabilities in the cell phone standards and the market barriers to fixing them.

So far, industry and policymakers have largely dragged their feet when it comes to blocking cell-site simulators and SS7 attacks. Senator Ron Wyden, one of the few lawmakers vocal about this issue, sent a letter in August encouraging the Department of Justice to "be forthright with federal courts about the disruptive nature of cell-site simulators." No response has ever been published.

The lack of action could be because it is a big task -- there are hundreds of companies and international bodies involved in the cellular network. The other reason could be that intelligence and law enforcement agencies have a vested interest in exploiting these same vulnerabilities. But law enforcement has other effective tools that are unavailable to criminals and spies. For example, the police can work directly with phone companies, serving warrants and Title III wiretap orders. In the end, eliminating these vulnerabilities is just as valuable for law enforcement as it is for everyone else.

As it stands, there is no government agency that has the power, funding and mission to fix the problems. Large companies such as AT&T, Verizon, Google and Apple have not been public about their efforts, if any exist.

from https://www.schneier.com/blog/

Congressional Report on the 2017 Equifax Data Breach

The US House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform has just released a comprehensive report on the 2017 Equifax hack. It’s a great piece of writing, with a detailed timeline, root cause analysis, and lessons learned. Lance Spitzner also commented on this. Here is my testimony before before the House Subcommittee on Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection last…

The US House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform has just released a comprehensive report on the 2017 Equifax hack. It's a great piece of writing, with a detailed timeline, root cause analysis, and lessons learned. Lance Spitzner also commented on this.

Here is my testimony before before the House Subcommittee on Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection last November.

from https://www.schneier.com/blog/

The DoJ’s Secret Legal Arguments to Break Cryptography

Earlier this year, the US Department of Justice made a series of legal arguments as to why Facebook should be forced to help the government wiretap Facebook Messenger. Those arguments are still sealed. The ACLU is suing to make them public….

Earlier this year, the US Department of Justice made a series of legal arguments as to why Facebook should be forced to help the government wiretap Facebook Messenger. Those arguments are still sealed. The ACLU is suing to make them public.

from https://www.schneier.com/blog/

The Pentagon Is Publishing Foreign Nation-State Malware

This is a new thing: The Pentagon has suddenly started uploading malware samples from APTs and other nation-state sources to the website VirusTotal, which is essentially a malware zoo that’s used by security pros and antivirus/malware detection engines to gain a better understanding of the threat landscape. This feels like an example of the US’s new strategy of actively harassing…

This is a new thing:

The Pentagon has suddenly started uploading malware samples from APTs and other nation-state sources to the website VirusTotal, which is essentially a malware zoo that's used by security pros and antivirus/malware detection engines to gain a better understanding of the threat landscape.

This feels like an example of the US's new strategy of actively harassing foreign government actors. By making their malware public, the US is forcing them to continually find and use new vulnerabilities.

EDITED TO ADD (11/13): This is another good article. And here is some background on the malware.

from https://www.schneier.com/blog/

Cell Phone Security and Heads of State

Earlier this week, the New York Times reported that the Russians and the Chinese were eavesdropping on President Donald Trump’s personal cell phone and using the information gleaned to better influence his behavior. This should surprise no one. Security experts have been talking about the potential security vulnerabilities in Trump’s cell phone use since he became president. And President Barack…

Earlier this week, the New York Times reported that the Russians and the Chinese were eavesdropping on President Donald Trump's personal cell phone and using the information gleaned to better influence his behavior. This should surprise no one. Security experts have been talking about the potential security vulnerabilities in Trump's cell phone use since he became president. And President Barack Obama bristled at -- but acquiesced to -- the security rules prohibiting him from using a "regular" cell phone throughout his presidency.

Three broader questions obviously emerge from the story. Who else is listening in on Trump's cell phone calls? What about the cell phones of other world leaders and senior government officials? And -- most personal of all -- what about my cell phone calls?

There are two basic places to eavesdrop on pretty much any communications system: at the end points and during transmission. This means that a cell phone attacker can either compromise one of the two phones or eavesdrop on the cellular network. Both approaches have their benefits and drawbacks. The NSA seems to prefer bulk eavesdropping on the planet's major communications links and then picking out individuals of interest. In 2016, WikiLeaks published a series of classified documents listing "target selectors": phone numbers the NSA searches for and records. These included senior government officials of Germany -- among them Chancellor Angela Merkel -- France, Japan, and other countries.

Other countries don't have the same worldwide reach that the NSA has, and must use other methods to intercept cell phone calls. We don't know details of which countries do what, but we know a lot about the vulnerabilities. Insecurities in the phone network itself are so easily exploited that 60 Minutes eavesdropped on a US congressman's phone live on camera in 2016. Back in 2005, unknown attackers targeted the cell phones of many Greek politicians by hacking the country's phone network and turning on an already-installed eavesdropping capability. The NSA even implanted eavesdropping capabilities in networking equipment destined for the Syrian Telephone Company.

Alternatively, an attacker could intercept the radio signals between a cell phone and a tower. Encryption ranges from very weak to possibly strong, depending on which flavor the system uses. Don't think the attacker has to put his eavesdropping antenna on the White House lawn; the Russian Embassy is close enough.

The other way to eavesdrop on a cell phone is by hacking the phone itself. This is the technique favored by countries with less sophisticated intelligence capabilities. In 2017, the public-interest forensics group Citizen Lab uncovered an extensive eavesdropping campaign against Mexican lawyers, journalists, and opposition politicians -- presumably run by the government. Just last month, the same group found eavesdropping capabilities in products from the Israeli cyberweapons manufacturer NSO Group operating in Algeria, Bangladesh, Greece, India, Kazakhstan, Latvia, South Africa -- 45 countries in all.

These attacks generally involve downloading malware onto a smartphone that then records calls, text messages, and other user activities, and forwards them to some central controller. Here, it matters which phone is being targeted. iPhones are harder to hack, which is reflected in the prices companies pay for new exploit capabilities. In 2016, the vulnerability broker Zerodium offered $1.5 million for an unknown iOS exploit and only $200 for a similar Android exploit. Earlier this year, a new Dubai start-up announced even higher prices. These vulnerabilities are resold to governments and cyberweapons manufacturers.

Some of the price difference is due to the ways the two operating systems are designed and used. Apple has much more control over the software on an iPhone than Google does on an Android phone. Also, Android phones are generally designed, built, and sold by third parties, which means they are much less likely to get timely security updates. This is changing. Google now has its own phone -- Pixel -- that gets security updates quickly and regularly, and Google is now trying to pressure Android-phone manufacturers to update their phones more regularly. (President Trump reportedly uses an iPhone.)

Another way to hack a cell phone is to install a backdoor during the design process. This is a real fear; earlier this year, US intelligence officials warned that phones made by the Chinese companies ZTE and Huawei might be compromised by that government, and the Pentagon ordered stores on military bases to stop selling them. This is why China's recommendation that if Trump wanted security, he should use a Huawei phone, was an amusing bit of trolling.

Given the wealth of insecurities and the array of eavesdropping techniques, it's safe to say that lots of countries are spying on the phones of both foreign officials and their own citizens. Many of these techniques are within the capabilities of criminal groups, terrorist organizations, and hackers. If I were guessing, I'd say that the major international powers like China and Russia are using the more passive interception techniques to spy on Trump, and that the smaller countries are too scared of getting caught to try to plant malware on his phone.

It's safe to say that President Trump is not the only one being targeted; so are members of Congress, judges, and other senior officials -- especially because no one is trying to tell any of them to stop using their cell phones (although cell phones still are not allowed on either the House or the Senate floor).

As for the rest of us, it depends on how interesting we are. It's easy to imagine a criminal group eavesdropping on a CEO's phone to gain an advantage in the stock market, or a country doing the same thing for an advantage in a trade negotiation. We've seen governments use these tools against dissidents, reporters, and other political enemies. The Chinese and Russian governments are already targeting the US power grid; it makes sense for them to target the phones of those in charge of that grid.

Unfortunately, there's not much you can do to improve the security of your cell phone. Unlike computer networks, for which you can buy antivirus software, network firewalls, and the like, your phone is largely controlled by others. You're at the mercy of the company that makes your phone, the company that provides your cellular service, and the communications protocols developed when none of this was a problem. If one of those companies doesn't want to bother with security, you're vulnerable.

This is why the current debate about phone privacy, with the FBI on one side wanting the ability to eavesdrop on communications and unlock devices, and users on the other side wanting secure devices, is so important. Yes, there are security benefits to the FBI being able to use this information to help solve crimes, but there are far greater benefits to the phones and networks being so secure that all the potential eavesdroppers -- including the FBI -- can't access them. We can give law enforcement other forensics tools, but we must keep foreign governments, criminal groups, terrorists, and everyone else out of everyone's phones. The president may be taking heat for his love of his insecure phone, but each of us is using just as insecure a phone. And for a surprising number of us, making those phones more private is a matter of national security.

This essay previously appeared in the Atlantic.

EDITED TO ADD: Steven Bellovin and Susan Landau have a good essay on the same topic, as does Wired. Slashdot post.

from https://www.schneier.com/blog/

Government Perspective on Supply Chain Security

This is an interesting interview with a former NSA employee about supply chain security. I consider this to be an insurmountable problem right now….

This is an interesting interview with a former NSA employee about supply chain security. I consider this to be an insurmountable problem right now.

from https://www.schneier.com/blog/

Security Vulnerabilities in US Weapons Systems

The US Government Accounting Office just published a new report: "Weapons Systems Cyber Security: DOD Just Beginning to Grapple with Scale of Vulnerabilities" (summary here). The upshot won’t be a surprise to any of my regular readers: they’re vulnerable. From the summary: Automation and connectivity are fundamental enablers of DOD’s modern military capabilities. However, they make weapon systems more vulnerable…

The US Government Accounting Office just published a new report: "Weapons Systems Cyber Security: DOD Just Beginning to Grapple with Scale of Vulnerabilities" (summary here). The upshot won't be a surprise to any of my regular readers: they're vulnerable.

From the summary:

Automation and connectivity are fundamental enablers of DOD's modern military capabilities. However, they make weapon systems more vulnerable to cyber attacks. Although GAO and others have warned of cyber risks for decades, until recently, DOD did not prioritize weapon systems cybersecurity. Finally, DOD is still determining how best to address weapon systems cybersecurity.

In operational testing, DOD routinely found mission-critical cyber vulnerabilities in systems that were under development, yet program officials GAO met with believed their systems were secure and discounted some test results as unrealistic. Using relatively simple tools and techniques, testers were able to take control of systems and largely operate undetected, due in part to basic issues such as poor password management and unencrypted communications. In addition, vulnerabilities that DOD is aware of likely represent a fraction of total vulnerabilities due to testing limitations. For example, not all programs have been tested and tests do not reflect the full range of threats.

It is definitely easier, and cheaper, to ignore the problem or pretend it isn't a big deal. But that's probably a mistake in the long run.

from https://www.schneier.com/blog/