SIM card makers hacked by NSA and GCHQ leaving cell networks wide open
In a new report on some of the confidential documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, The Intercept wrote that operatives from both the National Security Agency (NSA) and the British Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) joined forces in April 2010 to crack mobile phone encryption. The Mobile Handset Exploitation Team (MHET) succeeded in stealing untold numbers of encryption keys from SIM card makers and mobile networks, specifically Dutch SIM card maker Gemalto, one of the largest SIM manufacturers in the world. Gemalto produces 2 billion SIM cards a year, which are used all over the world.
Although the SIM card in a cell phone was originally used to verify billing to mobile phone users, today a SIM also stores the encryption keys that protect a user’s voice, text, and data-based communications and make them difficult for spies to listen in on. The mobile carrier holds the corresponding key that allows the phone to connect to the mobile carrier’s network. Each SIM card is manufactured with an encryption key (called a “Ki”) that is physically burned into the chip. When you go to use the phone, it “conducts a secret ‘handshake’ that validates that the Ki on the SIM matches the Ki held by the mobile company,” The Intercept explains. “Once that happens, the communications between the phone and the network are encrypted.”
Using a fake cell tower and holding SIM encryption keys, spies are able to listen into conversations over mobile networks without asking the courts for permission for a wiretap. The method is also difficult to trace, so risk of discovery is low.
To steal the SIM encryption keys, MHET exploited a weakness in SIM manufacturers’ business routine—that SIM card manufacturers tend to deliver the corresponding Kis to mobile carriers via e-mail or File Transfer Protocol. By doing basic cyberstalking of Gemalto employees, the NSA and GCHQ were able to pilfer “millions” of SIM Kis, which have a slow turnover rate (your phone’s Ki will likely remain the same as long as you keep the SIM in the phone) and can be used to decrypt data that has been stored for months or even years.
Gemalto not only makes SIM cards, but it also makes chips that are placed into EMV credit cards as well as the chips built into next-generation United States passports. Paul Beverly, a Gemalto executive vice president, told The Intercept that the company’s security team began an audit on Wednesday and could find no evidence of the hacks. “The most important thing for me is to understand exactly how this was done, so we can take every measure to ensure that it doesn’t happen again, and also to make sure that there’s no impact on the telecom operators that we have served in a very trusted manner for many years,” Beverly said. Gemalto’s clients include hundreds of wireless networks around the world, including all four major carriers in the US.
According to the documents procured by The Intercept, MHET was able to use the NSA’s XKeyscore to mine the e-mail accounts and Facebook profiles of engineers at major telecom companies and SIM card manufacturing companies, looking for clues that would get them into the SIM Ki trove. (XKeyscore is a program designed by the NSA to reassemble and analyze the data packets it finds traveling over a network. XKeyscore is powerful enough to be able to pull up the full content of users’ Web browser sessions, and it can even “generate a full replay of a network session between two Internet addresses,” as Ars reported in 2013.) Eventually, MHET learned enough to be able to plant malware on several of Gemalto’s internal servers.
In the course of trying to break into Gemalto’s internal network, the NSA and GCHQ looked for employees using encryption as preferred targets. The spy agencies also expanded their surveillance to include mobile phone companies and networks, as well as other SIM manufacturers. The Intercept explained:
In one instance, GCHQ zeroed in on a Gemalto employee in Thailand who they observed sending PGP-encrypted files, noting that if GCHQ wanted to expand its Gemalto operations, “he would certainly be a good place to start.” They did not claim to have decrypted the employee’s communications, but noted that the use of PGP could mean the contents were potentially valuable.
GCHQ assigned “scores” to more than 150 individual email addresses based on how often the users mentioned certain technical terms, and then intensified the mining of those individuals’ accounts based on priority. The highest scoring email address was that of an employee of Chinese tech giant Huawei, which the US has repeatedly accused of collaborating with Chinese intelligence. In all, GCHQ harvested the emails of employees of hardware companies that manufacture phones, such as Ericsson and Nokia; operators of mobile networks, such as MTN Irancell and Belgacom; SIM card providers, such as Bluefish and Gemalto; and employees of targeted companies who used email providers such as Yahoo! and Google. During the three-month trial, the largest number of email addresses harvested were those belonging to Huawei employees, followed by MTN Irancell. The third largest class of emails harvested in the trial were private Gmail accounts, presumably belonging to employees at targeted companies.
The documents provided by The Intercept say that the NSA and GCHQ were able to set up an automated process that allowed the agencies to identify tens of thousands of new Kis in a three-month period, specifically in countries like Yemen, Afghanistan, Iran, and Somalia, but also in Iceland, Ireland, and India. Acquiring Kis and using them to decrypt freely available cell signals has an obvious advantage in foreign countries where national governments may be reluctant or hostile to granting a wiretap to the NSA or GCHQ.