SIM card hack has severe implications for business

Individuals are at risk from new SIM card vulnerabilities, but businesses have it even worse.

It's amazing it took so long. More than 20 years after its initial development, the SIM card has been hacked. A German cryptographer named Karsten Nohl will be presenting findings to that effect at the annual Black Hat computer security conference at the end of the month.

The impact of hacked SIM cards, one of the few stalwarts in the high-tech industry that has not seen a serious exploit, could be monumental. The exploit involves simply sending a specially configured, hidden SMS to the phone, giving the attacker an easy way around that phone's built-in encryption. Ultimately this would then give the attacker the ability to do all manner of nasty things, from having the phone send pricy for-pay text messages to recording telephone conversations. While some seven billion SIM cards are in use today, Nohl estimated that roughly half a billion mobile devices worldwide would currently be vulnerable to this type of attack.

Fixes are already in the works, but as any IT manager who's survived an old-fashioned Windows virus onslaught knows, a fix does not necessarily equal a solution. Even if patches are made available, that's no guarantee they'll be universally rolled out in a timely fashion. SIM cards can be updated invisibly over the air by network operators, but that poses a secondary problem. Because users have no visibility into whether their phones are vulnerable to the attack or not, wireless customers won't know whether or not their devices are safe.

For individuals, the risk of someone hijacking your phone and listening in on calls or making phony purchases is bad enough.

For business users, these problems may soon be compounded considerably.

As business data continues to move from the desktop PC to mobile devices, even rank-and-file employees are finding themselves walking around with a mountain of sensitive data in their pocket or purse. Lost and stolen phones have become an epidemic for the corporate world, and solutions to this dilemma have been unbearably slow in presenting themselves. Compound that with the risk that a large number of business devices may also be able to be attacked via a remote exploit and cell phones are looking increasingly like the weak link in any business's infrastructure.

Let's say a business does take steps to secure its handsets and ensure that SIM cards are properly patched and safe from attack. What then? Even if businesses correct company-owned devices, plenty of risks are sure to remain, thanks to the rise of BYOD (bring your own device) programs. BYOD, for the uninitiated, is the policy of allowing employees to use their own phone or tablet for work -- often in lieu of issuing them a company-owned mobile phone or even a landline. This saves the company money but remains a serious security risk -- doubly so given the current news, since BYOD devices can't be easily patched or protected from a central location.

Finally, as phone-based commerce becomes increasingly popular, this opens up yet another avenue where businesses will face risks. Hackers could theoretically redirect payments or change the amounts involved, potentially leaving merchants high and dry at the end of a transaction.

Join the CSO newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags cellular networkssecuritymobile securitybusiness security

Show Comments

Featured Whitepapers

Editor's Recommendations

Solution Centres

Stories by Christopher Null

Latest Videos

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: The Human Factor - Your people are your biggest security weakness

    ​Speakers: David Lacey, Researcher and former CISO Royal Mail David Turner - Global Risk Management Expert Mark Guntrip - Group Manager, Email Protection, Proofpoint

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Current ransomware defences are failing – but machine learning can drive a more proactive solution

    Speakers • Ty Miller, Director, Threat Intelligence • Mark Gregory, Leader, Network Engineering Research Group, RMIT • Jeff Lanza, Retired FBI Agent (USA) • Andy Solterbeck, VP Asia Pacific, Cylance • David Braue, CSO MC/Moderator What to expect: ​Hear from industry experts on the local and global ransomware threat landscape. Explore a new approach to dealing with ransomware using machine-learning techniques and by thinking about the problem in a fundamentally different way. Apply techniques for gathering insight into ransomware behaviour and find out what elements must go into a truly effective ransomware defence. Get a first-hand look at how ransomware actually works in practice, and how machine-learning techniques can pick up on its activities long before your employees do.

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Get real about metadata to avoid a false sense of security

    Speakers: • Anthony Caruana – CSO MC and moderator • Ian Farquhar, Worldwide Virtual Security Team Lead, Gigamon • John Lindsay, Former CTO, iiNet • Skeeve Stevens, Futurist, Future Sumo • David Vaile - Vice chair of APF, Co-Convenor of the Cyberspace Law And Policy Community, UNSW Law Faculty This webinar covers: - A 101 on metadata - what it is and how to use it - Insight into a typical attack, what happens and what we would find when looking into the metadata - How to collect metadata, use this to detect attacks and get greater insight into how you can use this to protect your organisation - Learn how much raw data and metadata to retain and how long for - Get a reality check on how you're using your metadata and if this is enough to secure your organisation

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: How banking trojans work and how you can stop them

    CSO Webinar: How banking trojans work and how you can stop them Featuring: • John Baird, Director of Global Technology Production, Deutsche Bank • Samantha Macleod, GM Cyber Security, ME Bank • Sherrod DeGrippo, Director of Emerging Threats, Proofpoint (USA)

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    IDG Live Webinar:The right collaboration strategy will help your business take flight

    Speakers - Mike Harris, Engineering Services Manager, Jetstar - Christopher Johnson, IT Director APAC, 20th Century Fox - Brent Maxwell, Director of Information Systems, THE ICONIC - IDG MC/Moderator Anthony Caruana

    Play Video

More videos

Blog Posts