Smartphones Can Be Hacked With Malicious Replacement Parts


IT security researchers at Israel based the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev has discovered that smartphone users looking to replace or repair their device can become the target of a sophisticated hack attack allowing hackers to steal personal and financial data.

The researchers conducted their tests on LG G Pad 7.0 and Huawei Nexus 6P smartphones and demonstrated that even a simple screen replacement could cause huge damage to the user because attackers can embed a malicious integrated chip within the touchscreen since third-party manufacturers produce these screens.

Beware - Smartphones Can Be Hacked With Malicious Replacement Parts
Chip used by researchers – Image Credit: Omer Shwartz

This allowed researchers to access personal data of the user including recording keyboard commands, taking pictures or record videos of the owner, install malicious apps, send commands without the knowledge of the owner and even taking the user to malicious and phishing websites.

In the second phase, researchers noticed that the malicious chip could also exploit security flaws in the operating system kernel of a targeted device.

According to the study:

“In contrast to ‘pluggable’ drivers, such as USB or network drivers, the component driver’s source code implicitly assumes that the component hardware is authentic and trustworthy.

As a result of this trust, very few integrity checks are performed on the communications between the component and the device’s main processor.”

The biggest issue with this attack is that once the original screen is replaced with the malicious one, it is almost impossible to know the difference and since it’s a file less attack it can evade anti-virus detection.

That means an attacker with above average knowledge of smartphone hardware can easily target its victims without their knowledge.

“A well-motivated adversary may be fully capable of mounting such attacks in a large-scale or against specific.”

“We analyze the operation of a commonly used touchscreen controller.

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.

Combining the two building blocks, we present and evaluate a series of end-to-end attacks that can severely compromise a stock Android phone with standard firmware.

Our results make the case for a hardware-based physical countermeasure.” researchers explained (Pdf).

Although the research was conducted on Android devices, the researchers warned that iPhones could also be targeted with similar attacks.

The researchers presented their findings during 2017 Usenix Workshop on Offensive Technologies.

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, the researchers concluded.

Watch the demonstration below:


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