Malicious Smartphone Replacement Parts

Joanna Estrada
August 21, 2017

Having a replacement screen can seriously compromise your smartphone if this new study is to be believed.

In a paper put together by researchers at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, it seems that they have raised concerns about how going to third-party fix shops could lend itself to the possibility that your devices could be hijacked from a relatively simple procedure of replacing a cracked screen.

This type of low-priced attack is known as the "chip-in-the-middle" scenario. We construct two standalone attacks, based on malicious touchscreen hardware, that function as building blocks toward a full attack: a series of touch injection attacks that allow the touchscreen to impersonate the user and exfiltrate data, and a buffer overflow attack that lets the attacker execute privileged operations. To separate the micro-controller from the motherboard and access its copper pads, the researchers use a hot air blower. Next, they soldered a copper wire to attach their chips to the device.

They found that in addition to recording keyboard inputs, installing apps and other remote commands, the attack could also exploit vulnerabilities in the smartphone's operating system kernel.

Although this set-up looks far from inconspicuous, the team claims a little more effort could easily hide the altered part within a reassembled device. A well-motivated adversary may be fully capable of mounting such attacks in a large-scale or against specific targets. System designers should consider replacement components to be outside the phone's trust boundary, and design their defenses accordingly. To assure customers that their device is using only certified parts, the researchers also request a robust certification process for replacement parts.

In an accompanying research paper, they said that the threat of a malicious peripheral existing inside consumer electronics should not be taken lightly.

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