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Millions of mobile phones may be vulnerable to spying due to the use of outdated, 1970s-era cryptography, new research shows.

There is a way to trick mobile phones into granting access to the device’s location, SMS functions and allow changes to a person’s voicemail number, said Karsten Nohl, an expert cryptographer with Security Research Labs (SRL). Nohl will present his findings at the Black Hat security conference in Las Vegas July 31.

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Nohl’s research looked at a mobile phones’ SIM (Subscriber Identification Module), the small card inserted into a device that ties it to a phone number and authenticates software updates and commands sent over-the-air from an operator.

More than 7 billion SIM cards are in use worldwide. To ensure privacy and security, SIM cards use encryption when communicating with an operator, but the encryption standards use vary widely.

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A mobile communication trade group, the GSM Association, said in a statement that only a “minority” of SIM cards that use older encryption standards would appear to be vulnerable.

“There is no evidence to suggest that today’s more secure SIMs, which are used to support a range of advanced services, will be affected,” GSMA said.

Nohl’s research found SIMs use a weak encryption standard dating from the 1970s called DES (Data Encryption Standard), according to a preview blog.

DES is a weak form of encryption, and many mobile operators have upgraded now to more secure forms. It is relatively easy to discover the private key used to sign content encrypted with DES.

In its experiment, SRL sent a binary code over SMS to a device using a SIM with DES. Since the binary code did not receive the proper cryptographic signature, it would not run on the device.

But while rejecting the code, the phone’s SIM makes a crucial mistake: It sends back over SMS an error code that carries its own encrypted 56-bit private key, according to the company. Because DES is a very weak form of encryption, it’s possible to decrypt the private key using known cracking techniques.

SRL did it in about two minutes on a regular computer with the help of a rainbow table, a mathematical chart that helps convert an encrypted private key or password hash into its original form faster.

With the private DES key in hand, it is then possible to “sign” malicious software updates with the key, and send those updates to the device. The device believes the software comes from a legitimate source and then grants access to sensitive data.

GSMA said it has not seen the full details of Nohl’s research but use of the DES algorithm has been “discontinued in over the air (OTA) standards for several years.”

SRL outlined an attack scenario against SIM cards that run some form of Java virtual machine, a software framework for Java applications.

Using the SIM’s private key, an attacker could force the SIM to download Java applets, which are essentially very small programs that perform some function. Those applets would be “allowed to send SMS, change voicemail numbers, and query the phone location, among many other predefined functions.”

“These capabilities alone provide plenty of potential for abuse,” the company wrote.

Possible remedies to the problem including ensuring SIM cards use state-of-the-art cryptography and also use Java virtual machines that restrict applets’ access to certain information.

GSMA said it has already provided guidance to network operators and SIM vendors that might fall victim to Nohl’s findings.

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