Attacking SMS

This year at BlackHat USA in Las Vegas, we presented on the topic of attacking Short Message Service (SMS). Our presentation focused on the different ways in which SMS can be used to compromise mobile security. We’re excited to give an updated version of our talk at the upcoming BlueHat v9 conference later this month, and thought the BlueHat blog readers who will not be able to attend might enjoy an overview of some key material from the presentation.

Why attack SMS – When we first started looking at SMS, two things immediately leapt out to us that made it an interesting attack surface. The first was that there is far more functionality delivered via SMS than the simple text messages that everyone is familiar with. For example, SMS can be used to reach other rich attack surfaces such as graphic libraries and video codecs. These are two areas which have contained extensive vulnerabilities in the past. The second item which makes SMS interesting to analyze is that it is always turned on (and ready to be attacked). SMS messages are delivered to mobile phones via the paging channel that the network uses to notify the phone of important information such as an incoming call. Therefore, it is extremely difficult to tell a mobile phone to not receive an incoming SMS as the phone always needs to listen on this interface. Additionally, the network is built to make a best effort to deliver an SMS to a recipient, which makes attacking even easier. If the target is offline or out of range it does not matter to the attacker, as the network will typically store the attack message until the target comes online and then will deliver it.

Attacks – In our presentation, we break down the attacks we discuss into three categories: Implementation, Configuration, and Architecture.

The first category of attacks we discuss is implementation flaws in the messaging software on mobile phones. We started with the assumption that any crash we triggered would likely be localized to the messaging application. We were surprised to find that crashes commonly occurred at a much lower layer that would knock the phone’s radio interface offline. This would then prevent the phone from placing or receiving calls and SMS traffic, sometimes even across multiple reboots of the device.

The second category of attacks we discuss is a case study of a configuration flaw that affected a number of mobile devices. Those of us working in application security are used to one vendor having direct responsibility for a product. In the mobile world, things operate differently. Instead of each application being the responsibility of a single vendor, there are three main players: the carrier, the hardware OEM who makes the device, and the operating system vendor. When a vulnerability is found in a given piece of software, the responsible vendor ships a patch for that vulnerability. As has been shown with multiple real-world devices, one of the parties can make a change to the configuration of the device that results in the final product shipping with an insecure configuration.

The final category of attacks we discuss relates to the security architecture of SMS. As we mentioned before, there is a lot of administrative functionality on mobile phones that makes use of SMS. A straightforward example of this functionality is voicemail notifications – a carrier can notify a subscriber that they have a voicemail message waiting by sending a specially crafted SMS to their mobile phone. Most phones respond to this message by executing an administrative action, such as popping up a notification to the user. Obviously, an administrative message type such as this should only be generated and sent by the carrier’s equipment. During the course of our research, we found that there are a number of administrative SMS message types that we were able to send as a peer device on the carrier network. Some of these message types can have significant security implications to the mobile phone, unlike a simple voicemail notification.

Conclusion – SMS and mobile devices in general offer an intriguing area for future security research, especially as mobile devices store increasingly sensitive information. We are looking forward to spending time at BlueHat doing a much deeper dive into the topics we have begun to introduce in this blog post.

– Zane Lackey (iSEC Partners), Luis Miras (Independent Security Researcher)