Shhh… Security Experts Not Convinced By Gemalto's Swift "Thorough" Investigations into NSA-GCHQ SIM Card Hacks

Gemalto, the world’s largest SIM cards manufacturer that The Intercept reported last week to be hacked by the NSA and GCHQ, putting at risk some two billion SIM cards used in cellphones across the world, has somehow and somewhat concluded its findings after a “thorough” internal investigations in just six days, with assurance that its encryption keys are safe and admitted that the French-Dutch company believes the US and British spy agencies were behind a “particularly sophisticated intrusion” of its internal computer networks, back four-five years ago.

In The Intercept follow-up report (please see further below):

“Gemalto learned about this five-year-old hack by GCHQ when the The Intercept called them up for a comment last week. That doesn’t sound like they’re on top of things, and it certainly suggests they don’t have the in-house capability to detect and thwart sophisticated state-sponsored attacks,” says Christopher Soghoian, the chief technologist at the American Civil Liberties Union.

Or consider this (below – Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z0amvXr8BUk )

SIM-Gemalto2

So, time to decide for yourself if you’re convinced and also think of solutions like encrypted communications – and do check out the video clips below:

Gemalto Doesn’t Know What It Doesn’t Know
By Jeremy Scahill
@jeremyscahill

Gemalto, the French-Dutch digital security giant, confirmed that it believes American and British spies were behind a “particularly sophisticated intrusion” of its internal computer networks, as reported by The Intercept last week.

This morning, the company tried to downplay the significance of NSA and GCHQ efforts against its mobile phone encryption keys — and, in the process, made erroneous statements about cellphone technology and sweeping claims about its own security that experts describe as highly questionable.

Gemalto, which is the largest manufacturer of SIM cards in the world, launched an internal investigation after The Intercept six days ago revealed that the NSA and its British counterpart GCHQ hacked the company and cyberstalked its employees. In the secret documents, provided by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, the intelligence agencies described a successful effort to obtain secret encryption keys used to protect hundreds of millions of mobile devices across the globe.

The company was eager to address the claims that its systems and encryption keys had been massively compromised. At one point in stock trading after publication of the report, Gemalto suffered a half billion dollar hit to its market capitalization. The stock only partially recovered in the following days.

After the brief investigation, Gemalto now says that the NSA and GCHQ operations in 2010-2011 would not allow the intelligence agencies to spy on 3G and 4G networks, and that theft would have been rare after 2010, when it deployed a “secure transfer system.” The company also said the spy agency hacks only affected “the outer parts of our networks — our office networks — which are in contact with the outside world.”

Security experts and cryptography specialists immediately challenged Gemalto’s claim to have done a “thorough” investigation into the state-sponsored attack in just six days, saying the company was greatly underestimating the abilities of the NSA and GCHQ to penetrate its systems without leaving detectable traces.

“Gemalto learned about this five-year-old hack by GCHQ when the The Intercept called them up for a comment last week. That doesn’t sound like they’re on top of things, and it certainly suggests they don’t have the in-house capability to detect and thwart sophisticated state-sponsored attacks,” says Christopher Soghoian, the chief technologist at the American Civil Liberties Union. He adds that Gemalto remains “a high-profile target for intelligence agencies.”

Matthew Green, a cryptography specialist at the Johns Hopkins Information Security Institute, said, “This is an investigation that seems mainly designed to produce positive statements. It is not an investigation at all.”

In its statement, Gemalto asserted:

“While the intrusions described above were serious, sophisticated attacks, nothing was detected in other parts of our network. No breaches were found in the infrastructure running our SIM activity or in other parts of the secure network which manage our other products such as banking cards, ID cards or electronic passports. Each of these networks is isolated from one another and they are not connected to external networks.

It is extremely difficult to remotely attack a large number of SIM cards on an individual basis. This fact, combined with the complex architecture of our networks explains why the intelligence services instead, chose to target the data as it was transmitted between suppliers and mobile operators as explained in the documents.”

But security and encryption experts told The Intercept that Gemalto’s statements about its investigation contained a significant error about cellphone technology. The company also made sweeping, overly-optimistic statements about the security and stability of Gemalto’s networks, and dramatically underplayed the significance of the NSA-GCHQ targeting of the company and its employees. “Their ‘investigation’ seem to have consisted of asking their security team which attacks they detected over the past few years. That isn’t much of an investigation, and it certainly won’t reveal successful nation-state attacks,” says the ACLU’s Soghoian.

Security expert Ronald Prins, co-founder of the Dutch firm Fox IT, told The Intercept, “A true forensic investigation in such a complex environment is not possible in this time frame.”

“A damage assessment is more what this looks like,” he added.

In a written presentation of its findings, Gemalto claims that “in the case of an eventual key theft, the intelligence services would only be able to spy on communications on second generation 2G mobile networks. 3G and 4G networks are not vulnerable.” Gemalto also referred to its own “custom algorithms” and other, unspecified additional security mechanisms on top of the 3G and 4G standards.

Green, the Johns Hopkins cryptography specialist, said Gemalto’s claims are flatly incorrect.

“No encryption mechanism stands up to key theft,” Green says, “which means Gemalto is either convinced that the additional keys could not also have been stolen or they’re saying that their mechanisms have some proprietary ‘secret sauce’ and that GCHQ, backed by the resources of NSA, could not have reverse engineered them. That’s a deeply worrying statement.”

“I think you could make that statement against some gang of Internet hackers,” Green adds. “But you don’t get to make it against nation state adversaries. It simply doesn’t have a place in the conversation. They are saying that NSA/GCHQ could not have breached those technologies due to ‘additional encryption’ mechanisms that they don’t specify, and yet here we have evidence that GCHQ and NSA were actively compromising encryption keys.”

In a press conference today in Paris, Gemalto’s CEO, Olivier Piou, said his company will not take legal action against the NSA and GCHQ. “It’s difficult to prove our conclusions legally, so we’re not going to take legal action,” he said. “The history of going after a state shows it is costly, lengthy and rather arbitrary.”

There has been significant commercial pressure and political attention placed on Gemalto since The Intercept’s report. Wireless network providers on multiple continents demanded answers and some, like Deutsche Telekom, took immediate action to change their encryption algorithms on Gemalto-supplied SIM cards. The Australian Privacy Commissioner has launched an investigation and several members of the European Union parliament and Dutch parliament have asked individual governments to launch investigations. German opposition lawmakers say they are initiating a probe into the hack as well.

On Wednesday, Gerard Schouw, a member of the Dutch parliament, submitted formal questions about the Gemalto hack and the findings of the company’s internal investigation to the interior minister. “Will the Minister address this matter with the Ambassadors of the United States and the United Kingdom? If not, why is the Minister not prepared to do so? If so, when will the Minister do this?” Schouw asked. “How does the Minister assess the claim by Gemalto that the attack could only lead to wiretapping 2G-network connections, and that 3G and 4G-type networks are not susceptible to this kind of hacks?”

China Mobile, which uses Gemalto SIM cards, has more wireless network customers than any company in the world. This week it announced it was investigating the breach and the Chinese government said it was “concerned” about the Gemalto hack. “We are opposed to any country attempting to use information technology products to conduct cyber surveillance,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said. “This not only harms the interests of consumers but also undermines users’ confidence.” He did not mention that China itself engages in widespread, state-sponsored hacking.

While Gemalto is clearly trying to calm its investors and customers, security experts say the company’s statements appear intended to reassure the public about the company’s security rather than to demonstrate that it is taking the breach seriously.

The documents published by The Intercept relate to hacks done in 2010 and 2011. The idea that spy agencies are no longer targeting the company — and its competitors — with more sophisticated intrusions, according to Soghoian, is ridiculous. “Gemalto is as much of an interesting target in 2015 as they were in 2010. Gemalto’s security team may want to keep looking, not just for GCHQ and NSA, but also, for the Chinese, Russians and Israelis too,” he said.

Green, the Johns Hopkins cryptographer, says this hack should be “a wake-up call that manufacturers are considered valuable targets by intelligence agencies. There’s a lot of effort in here to minimize and deny the impact of some old attacks, but who cares about old attacks? What I would like to see is some indication that they’re taking this seriously going forward, that they’re hardening their systems and closing any loopholes — because loopholes clearly existed. That would make me enormously more confident than this response.”

Green says that the Gemalto hack evidences a disturbing trend that is on the rise: the targeting of innocent employees of tech firms and the companies themselves. (The same tactic was used by GCHQ in its attack on Belgian telecommunications company Belgacom.)

“Once upon a time we might have believed that corporations like this were not considered valid targets for intelligence agencies, that GCHQ would not go after system administrators and corporations in allied nations. All of those assumptions are out the window, so now we’re in this new environment, where everyone is a valid target,” he says. “In computer security, we talk about ‘threat models,’ which is a way to determine who your adversary is, and what their capabilities are. This news means everyone has to change their threat model.”

Additional reporting by Ryan Gallagher. Josh Begley contributed to this report.

Shhh… A Feasible Strategy Despite Severe Innate Phone Security (Eavesdropping) Flaws Like SS7

The Washington Post article below once again highlights one approach to mobile phone usage: have many spares, apart from your regular smartphone(s), like good old cellulars and disposable low-value SIM cards. Dispose the SIM card after each use and always switch amongst those cellulars.

It can’t stop eavesdropping but at least the hackers and spies cannot trace you so easily. The approach may sound extreme to most people, so for all practical reasons, it’s best recommended only for those important and confidential conversations.

SpareSimsPhones2

German researchers discover a flaw that could let anyone listen to your cell calls.
By Craig Timberg December 18

German researchers have discovered security flaws that could let hackers, spies and criminals listen to private phone calls and intercept text messages on a potentially massive scale – even when cellular networks are using the most advanced encryption now available.

The flaws, to be reported at a hacker conference in Hamburg this month, are the latest evidence of widespread insecurity on SS7, the global network that allows the world’s cellular carriers to route calls, texts and other services to each other. Experts say it’s increasingly clear that SS7, first designed in the 1980s, is riddled with serious vulnerabilities that undermine the privacy of the world’s billions of cellular customers.

The flaws discovered by the German researchers are actually functions built into SS7 for other purposes – such as keeping calls connected as users speed down highways, switching from cell tower to cell tower – that hackers can repurpose for surveillance because of the lax security on the network.

Those skilled at the myriad functions built into SS7 can locate callers anywhere in the world, listen to calls as they happen or record hundreds of encrypted calls and texts at a time for later decryption. There also is potential to defraud users and cellular carriers by using SS7 functions, the researchers say.

These vulnerabilities continue to exist even as cellular carriers invest billions of dollars to upgrade to advanced 3G technology aimed, in part, at securing communications against unauthorized eavesdropping. But even as individual carriers harden their systems, they still must communicate with each other over SS7, leaving them open to any of thousands of companies worldwide with access to the network. That means that a single carrier in Congo or Kazakhstan, for example, could be used to hack into cellular networks in the United States, Europe or anywhere else.

“It’s like you secure the front door of the house, but the back door is wide open,” said Tobias Engel, one of the German researchers.

Engel, founder of Sternraute, and Karsten Nohl, chief scientist for Security Research Labs, separately discovered these security weaknesses as they studied SS7 networks in recent months, after The Washington Post reported the widespread marketing of surveillance systems that use SS7 networks to locate callers anywhere in the world. The Post reported that dozens of nations had bought such systems to track surveillance targets and that skilled hackers or criminals could do the same using functions built into SS7. (The term is short for Signaling System 7 and replaced previous networks called SS6, SS5, etc.)

The researchers did not find evidence that their latest discoveries, which allow for the interception of calls and texts, have been marketed to governments on a widespread basis. But vulnerabilities publicly reported by security researchers often turn out to be tools long used by secretive intelligence services, such as the National Security Agency or Britain’s GCHQ, but not revealed to the public.

“Many of the big intelligence agencies probably have teams that do nothing but SS7 research and exploitation,” said Christopher Soghoian, principal technologist for the ACLU and an expert on surveillance technology. “They’ve likely sat on these things and quietly exploited them.”

The GSMA, a global cellular industry group based in London, did not respond to queries seeking comment about the vulnerabilities that Nohl and Engel have found. For the Post’s article in August on location tracking systems that use SS7, GSMA officials acknowledged problems with the network and said it was due to be replaced over the next decade because of a growing list of security and technical issues.

The German researchers found two distinct ways to eavesdrop on calls using SS7 technology. In the first, commands sent over SS7 could be used to hijack a cell phone’s “forwarding” function — a service offered by many carriers. Hackers would redirect calls to themselves, for listening or recording, and then onward to the intended recipient of a call. Once that system was in place, the hackers could eavesdrop on all incoming and outgoing calls indefinitely, from anywhere in the world.

The second technique requires physical proximity but could be deployed on a much wider scale. Hackers would use radio antennas to collect all the calls and texts passing through the airwaves in an area. For calls or texts transmitted using strong encryption, such as is commonly used for advanced 3G connections, hackers could request through SS7 that each caller’s carrier release a temporary encryption key to unlock the communication after it has been recorded.

Nohl on Wednesday demonstrated the ability to collect and decrypt a text message using the phone of a German senator, who cooperated in the experiment. But Nohl said the process could be automated to allow massive decryption of calls and texts collected across an entire city or a large section of a country, using multiple antennas.

“It’s all automated, at the push of a button,” Nohl said. “It would strike me as a perfect spying capability, to record and decrypt pretty much any network… Any network we have tested, it works.”

Those tests have included more than 20 networks worldwide, including T-Mobile in the United States. The other major U.S. carriers have not been tested, though Nohl and Engel said it’s likely at least some of them have similar vulnerabilities. (Several smartphone-based text messaging systems, such as Apple’s iMessage and Whatsapp, use end-to-end encryption methods that sidestep traditional cellular text systems and likely would defeat the technique described by Nohl and Engel.)

In a statement, T-Mobile said: “T-Mobile remains vigilant in our work with other mobile operators, vendors and standards bodies to promote measures that can detect and prevent these attacks.”

The issue of cell phone interception is particularly sensitive in Germany because of news reports last year, based on documents provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, that a phone belonging to Chancellor Angela Merkel was the subject of NSA surveillance. The techniques of that surveillance have not become public, though Nohl said that the SS7 hacking method that he and Engel discovered is one of several possibilities.

U.S. embassies and consulates in dozens of foreign cities, including Berlin, are outfitted with antennas for collecting cellular signals, according to reports by German magazine Der Spiegel, based on documents released by Snowden. Many cell phone conversations worldwide happen with either no encryption or weak encryption.

The move to 3G networks offers far better encryption and the prospect of private communications, but the hacking techniques revealed by Nohl and Engel undermine that possibility. Carriers can potentially guard their networks against efforts by hackers to collect encryption keys, but it’s unclear how many have done so. One network that operates in Germany, Vodafone, recently began blocking such requests after Nohl reported the problem to the company two weeks ago.

Nohl and Engel also have discovered new ways to track the locations of cell phone users through SS7. The Post story, in August, reported that several companies were offering governments worldwide the ability to find virtually any cell phone user, virtually anywhere in the world, by learning the location of their cell phones through an SS7 function called an “Any Time Interrogation” query.

Some carriers block such requests, and several began doing so after the Post’s report. But the researchers in recent months have found several other techniques that hackers could use to find the locations of callers by using different SS7 queries. All networks must track their customers in order to route calls to the nearest cellular towers, but they are not required to share that information with other networks or foreign governments.

Carriers everywhere must turn over location information and allow eavesdropping of calls when ordered to by government officials in whatever country they are operating in. But the techniques discovered by Nohl and Engel offer the possibility of much broader collection of caller locations and conversations, by anyone with access to SS7 and the required technical skills to send the appropriate queries.

“I doubt we are the first ones in the world who realize how open the SS7 network is,” Engel said.

Secretly eavesdropping on calls and texts would violate laws in many countries, including the United States, except when done with explicit court or other government authorization. Such restrictions likely do little to deter criminals or foreign spies, say surveillance experts, who say that embassies based in Washington likely collect cellular signals.

The researchers also found that it was possible to use SS7 to learn the phone numbers of people whose cellular signals are collected using surveillance devices. The calls transmit a temporary identification number which, by sending SS7 queries, can lead to the discovery of the phone number. That allows location tracking within a certain area, such as near government buildings.

The German senator who cooperated in Nohl’s demonstration of the technology, Thomas Jarzombek of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party, said that while many in that nation have been deeply angered by revelations about NSA spying, few are surprised that such intrusions are possible.

“After all the NSA and Snowden things we’ve heard, I guess nobody believes it’s possible to have a truly private conversation on a mobile phone,” he said. “When I really need a confidential conversation, I use a fixed-line” phone.