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NSA and GCHQ hack database of billions of SIM card encryption keys

Another spying row is breaking out after The Intercept last week revealed how a joint unit made up from US and UK spy agencies hacked into the internal computer network of Dutch firm Gemalto, the largest SIM card manufacturer in the world, and stole billions of encryption keys used to secure the communications of cell phone users all around the world.

This information was obtained courtesy of Mr Edward Snowden, who expressed his anger at the NSA and GCHQ’s use of such tactics during a surprise Ask Me Anything session on Reddit on Tuesday,

When the NSA and GCHQ compromised the security of potentially billions of phones (3g/4g encryption relies on the shared secret resident on the sim, they not only screwed the manufacturer, they screwed all of us, because the only way to address the security compromise is to recall and replace every SIM sold by Gemalto.

Gemalto, for its part, has confirmed that it was hacked (most likely by the NSA and GCHQ), but is downplaying the significance of this by insisting that the hackers failed to access the systems where its encryption keys are held,

The investigation into the intrusion methods described in the document and the sophisticated attacks that Gemalto detected in 2010 and 2011 give us reasonable grounds to believe that an operation by NSA and GCHQ probably happened… [But] the attacks against Gemalto only breached its office networks and could not have resulted in a massive theft of SIM encryption keys.

Given that Snowden’s documents amount to a damning indictment of Gemalto’s security procedures, it is perhaps not so surprising that the SIM card manufacturer is keen to refute their claims. According the documents, the spy agencies targeted Gemalto employees’ emails and Facebook accounts, using information gleaned from these to hack their computers. Once inside the Gemalto network, they then built backdoors and other tools to gain a permanent presence within the system. As one leaked PowerPoint slide boasts,

GEMALTO – successfully implanted machines and believe we have their entire network.

Gemalto

Snowden’s AMA comments came after he was asked about Kaspersky’s recent discovery that the NSA has hacked the firmware of millions of hard drives, with Snowden arguing that this attack on encryption keys was worse,

‘[A]lthough firmware exploitation is nasty, it’s at least theoretically reparable: tools could plausibly be created to detect the bad firmware hashes and re-flash good ones. This isn’t the same for SIMs, which are flashed at the factory and never touched again.

Unfortunately there is very little that cellphone users can do about the situation, which (if true) allows the NSA and GCHQ to bypass the encryption built into 3G and 4G networks, and listen in to all calls made by users in the 85 countries and 450 cellphone networks that Gemalto does business with. As Chris Soghoian, principal technologist at the American Civil Liberties Union told the Guardian,

It is very unlikely that this is an issue that is going to be fixed anytime soon. There is no reason for people to trust AT&T, Verizon or anyone at this point. Their systems are hopelessly insecure. The real value of this is that it allows bulk surveillance of telecoms without anyone getting caught. In countries where the government will not cooperate, that’s very useful. It’s also very useful in countries where the government would help. Germany would allow spy on a suspected terrorist but not on [Angela] Merkel.’

The only solution to the problem would be a complete replacement program for all potentially affected SIM cards, which would be a very expensive logistical nightmare for Gemalto, so it is little wonder that the SIM manufacturer is denying that its keys have been compromised…


Douglas Crawford I am a freelance writer, technology enthusiast, and lover of life who enjoys spinning words and sharing knowledge for a living. Find me on Google+

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