Sunday, January 25, 2015

Your Cell Phone is Not Safe

Your cell phone can be taken over by hackers who will view through your camera and watch you enter your passwords and other information.  Here in Austin at the IEEE “Globecom” conference on global communication last December, I attended a presentation from Temple University researchers who compromised an Android cell phone. (For the exposed risk of someone else taking control of your car while you are driving it, see “Securing Your Viper Against Cylons” here on NecessaryFacts.) 


Doctoral candidate Longfei Wu and five colleagues from Temple University, the University of Massachusetts, and Beijing University exploited vulnerabilities in the Android cell phone to seize control of the camera.  

Having done that – and having reduced their footprint to one pixel – they then watched finger touches to the keyboard in order to guess passwords.  Some sequences were more secure than others.  1459 and 1479 were easy to identify.  1359 and 1471 were harder to guess.  The fundamental fact remains: They took control of the camera without the cell phone owner being aware of it.

Moreover, the Android operating system does not provide you with a log file of usage.  There is no way for you to review what your phone has been doing.  However, the researchers fixed that. 
“We make changes to the CheckPermission() function of ActicityManagerService, and write a lightweight defense app such that whenever the camera is being called by apps with CAMERA permission, the defense app will be informed along with the caller’s Application Package Name.[…]There are three parts of warnings in our defense scheme. First, an alert dialog including the name of the suspicious app is displayed. In case the warning message cannot be seen immediately by the user (e.g., the user is not using the phone), the defense app will also make sound and vibration to warn the user of spy camera attacks. Besides, the detailed activity pattern of suspected apps are logged so that the user can check back.” -- from "Security Threats to Mobile Multimedia Applications: Camera-based Attacks on Mobile Phones", IEEE Communications Magazine, March 2014."
iPhones also are at risk
If you want to protect your phone, you have to figure out how for yourself.  Very few ready-made defense apps exist for Android, or iPhone.  You could join a local hacker club such as DefCon.  (For Ann Arbor, it is DefCon 734; for Minneapolis it is DC612.)  That brings up the problem of trust.  When I go to computer security conferences, I never take a computer; and I do not answer my phone.  I do trust the organizers of our local groups, LASCON, ISSA, OWASP,  and B-Sides; but I do not trust everyone who comes to every meeting.  If you want someone to “jailbreak” your phone, and program something on it for you, then you really need strong trust.  It is best to do it for yourself. 

“Unfortunately, it's not uploaded online. To support the defense scheme, I modified the Android system and generate new image files. This means if someone want to use the defense function, he/she must flash the phone. As a result, all the installed stuff may get lost. I think people wouldn't like that to happen. Besides, the Android version I used for testing is 4.1-4.3, while the most recent release is 5.0.” – Longfei Wu, reply to email.
As "the Internet of Things" connects your washing machine and your car to your home thermostat and puts them all online along with your coffee-maker and alarm clock, all of them connected to the television box that never shuts off and always listens, you will be increasingly exposed to harm.  

PREVIOUSLY ON NECESSARY FACTS
Hacking
Biohackers
When Old Technologies Were New
LASCON 2014

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