Spying might have a long and sensationalised image in pop culture, Sense of Security’s Murray Goldschmidt says, “it’s not so enjoyable when the spying is on you”.
Goldschmidt told AusCERT delegates that the company decided to look at how plausible and practical it might be to carry out real-time spying via mobile phones: in particular, a targeted attack via its “targeted voice recorder” app.
Given that News Corporation reporters in the UK thought it valuable to break into telco voicemail systems, he said, “if the stakes were so high for voicemail, what are the stakes if you want to spy on an individual in real time?”
The answer: not particularly difficult.
In a chilling demonstration, the company showed how it had crafted a remote voice recorder that occupies just 600 lines of code, and yet is able to poll a host, trigger recording on the GPS of a specific location, record a conversation in the background, and file the result with a remote server.
The Sense of Security demonstrator was then embedded into a “notepad” application it submitted to, and had approved by, Google’s market; afterwards re-written to add the extra 600-line code snipped, re-submitted, and re-accepted.
The only “gotcha” is that you have to get the app onto the target machine – but how hard is it to get access to peoples’ mobiles? “Most devices have no password”, Goldsmith noted, and cited research that users are so lazy that “you have a one-in-seven chance of guessing someone’s password.”
“Once you have an application on a user device, this call recording is only the beginning,” he said.
By way of mitigation, Goldschmidt recommends:
- Whitelisting applications wherever possible (which will, however, require that users change their behaviour);
- User education;
- Strong passwords, including protection against the ‘smudge’ attack (looking at the trail of a user’s finger to guess their passwords); and
- Protecting against physical acquisition of the device.
“None of these would protect against remote acquisition of the target,” Goldschmidt noted.
“There is some extreme exposure for people both in a private capacity and in a business. There are severe implications for the privacy of the individual” – and the demonstration’s remote control spying capability “extends the scope and the risk.”
“If people can be spied upon in a targeted manner, certainly it means there are political and commercial implications here,” he said. “Every single person could be a sitting – or a moving – voice recorder.”
Even if you do have corporate controls in place, he said, “your users have meetings with other people as well – accountants, lawyers, suppliers. If any other party is vulnerable, your users might be spied on by proxy. It only takes one person to have an application like this on their device.”