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3G and 4G USB Modems Are Security Threat, Black Hat Presenter Says 50

Posted by Soulskill
from the concrete-blocks-are-a-security-threat dept.
alphadogg writes "The vast majority of 3G and 4G USB modems handed out by mobile operators to their customers are manufactured by a handful of companies and run insecure software, according to two security researchers from Russia. Researchers Nikita Tarakanov and Oleg Kupreev analyzed the security of 3G/4G USB modems obtained from Russian operators for the past several months. Their findings were presented this week at the Black Hat Europe 2013 security conference in Amsterdam. Most 3G/4G modems used in Russia, Europe, and probably elsewhere in the world, are made by Chinese hardware manufacturers Huawei and ZTE, and are branded with the mobile operators' logos and trademarks, Tarakanov said. Because of this, even if the research was done primarily on Huawei modems from Russian operators, the results should be relevant in other parts of the world as well, he said."
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3G and 4G USB Modems Are Security Threat, Black Hat Presenter Says

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  • by Anonymous Coward

    I did a small study on a few USB modems in the US. I found several setuid vulnerabilities and a lot of strange behavior that I didn't have the time or resources to fully analyze. You may feel safe on your personal hotspot but it does open a few potential openings if not mitigated.

  • No suprise here (Score:5, Interesting)

    by fustakrakich (1673220) on Saturday March 16, 2013 @11:54AM (#43191045) Journal

    Mandated backdoors aren't very well hidden. The only alternative for the authorities is to arrest the people who uncover them. Soon the 'blackhats' will have to meet in secret to protect themselves.

    Tarakanov said that they weren't able to test baseband attacks against the Qualcomm chips found inside the modems because it's illegal in Russia to operate your own GSM base station if you're not an intelligence agency or a telecom operator. "We'll probably have to move to another country for a few months to do it," he said.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      I know.. AC here.. but I know Ericsson are performing tests on the Huawei / ZTE stuff in their labs with simulated and real GSM basestations.
      Sometimes under contract from those companies themselves, sometimes for security reasons..

      A couple of times the design specs Huawei sends to Ericsson when on contract are plagiarized right off their own stuff. Even so badly there are still Ericsson logos left over.

    • by Svartalf (2997)

      Heh... Keep telling yourself this. It's less to do with what you're talking to and more of a licensing rules thing. Backdoors in GSM are already known and the "baseband" attacks these jokers allude to are actually as much bullshit as the "security risks" they're talking to on these devices.

      http://www.pittnerovi.com/jiri/hobby/electronics/gsm/index.html [pittnerovi.com] is there for your reading for starters. It has nothing to do with what you claim it to be- because if that were the case, it'd be illegal pretty much eve

    • yeah, all those 'universities' will have to pretend they aren't studying security and privacy in modern technology....
    • by gl4ss (559668)

      well.. of course they could try to lobby for experimental license.
      because it's like that in pretty much every country in the world - it's a licensed spectrum.

      doesn't mean that you can't do development in most of the world on the networks. they could operate that network in a cage for example... that's how many of the bigger operators test devices.

    • is it still illegal if you do it inside a Faraday cage where it can't be detected and cannot interfere with legitimate signals?
  • ...for the owner of a piece of hardware to be able to reprogram it?

    I suppose it is, when the owner is running Windows.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      The researchers also found a possible mass attack vector. Once installed on a computer, the modem application -- at least the one from Huawei -- checks periodically for updates from a single server, Tarakanov said. Software branded for a specific operator searchers for updates in a server directory specific to that operator.

      An attacker who manages to compromise this update server, can launch mass attacks against users from many operators, Tarakanov said. Huawei 3G modems from several different Russian operators used the same server, but there might be other update servers for other countries, he said.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        It would be a whole lot easier than that. Just a little DNS poisoning or a rogue DNS server and spoofing the update server directory structure. Poof! Instant zombie army. No phishing required.

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward

        An attacker who manages to compromise this update server, can launch mass attacks against users from many operators

        This attack is possible for any kind of software that uses an update server.

  • Security Threat? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Svartalf (2997) on Saturday March 16, 2013 @12:11PM (#43191121) Homepage

    Seriously... I'm beginning to wonder about the quality of presentations at Black Hat if this was even there .

    The modems themselves aren't a threat. It's the fact that many of them cart around drivers and "manager" applications which could provide storage based attack vectors or through compromised versions of the driver or manager that you have any problems... Unsurprising and already well known by most security researchers.

    1) For many of those "security threat" modems, Linux works wonders as does *BSD as they support the devices out of box with OS provided support.
    2) There's a panopoly of devices that don't expose the machines to any of these vectors that runs $50-150 provided by vendors such as Zoom and Cradlepoint (in fact, it's what I use since it allows the LTE dongle (that doesn't have these "risks" by the way...) be able to switch between 3G and 4G seamlessly (Linux supports both, but NetworkManager doesn't support switching gears between the differing ways both modes are accessed yet...). The devices either have their own battery or not but allow multiple (more than a MiFi type device does...) devices on the connection.
    3) If you're wanting something with a few less moving parts and slightly more compact, you can always get a MiFi (which is what the Telcos are now leaning towards because it allows things like your Nook or Kindle to link up to the Internet as well as your notebook...).

    I'd be ashamed of myself if I were to try to have ran this "issue" up the flagpole at BlackHat or DEFCON. Really, guys?

    • by Anonymous Coward

      > The modems themselves aren't a threat. It's the fact that many of them cart around drivers and "manager" applications

      Right. Guns aren't the threat, it's *triggers* that are the threat. If they just didn't come with triggers, we'd all be safe. This is already known by most gun users.

      Black Hat is not just for "l33t haxorz trix" to show off to the other "l33t haxoz" It's also fun to see just how widespread a problem, to see if it's a genuine and widespread threat, and to educate people who haven't explore

    • by Phizzle (1109923)

      2) There's a panopoly of devices that don't expose the machines to any of these vectors that runs $50-150 provided by vendors such as Zoom and Cradlepoint (in fact, it's what I use since it allows the LTE dongle (that doesn't have these "risks" by the way...) be able to switch between 3G and 4G seamlessly (Linux supports both, but NetworkManager doesn't support switching gears between the differing ways both modes are accessed yet...). The devices either have their own battery or not but allow multiple (more than a MiFi type device does...) devices on the connection.

      Svartalf, what device are you using? Thanks!!

    • then one could still consider the device to be a security risk. Even Linux tends to use many vendor-supplied firmwares.

      Operating the devices under Qubes OS [qubes-os.org] would help greatly in reducing the risk: It can use IOMMU (if present) to operate questionable hardware and drivers within VMs and even has a GUI for managing this.

      • by drinkypoo (153816)

        Linux can use the IOMMU, too. Problem is, practically nobody has a usable one, for which you need both proper CPU and chipset support. The chipsets and CPUs which have working implementations have only recently become popular. It's going to be a while before this is a reasonable suggestion for anyone. It will be nice, though. It's staggering that we haven't had them all along.

        • by Burz (138833)

          People who are interested in security won't stop at buying just software to get it. And the hardware isn't all that hard to come by anyway; just make sure the system has Intel sandy bridge or newer and also supports vPro.

          You can get the capability with AMD systems, but they are harder to come by (atthough Wikipedia is at least one place with a guide to AMD systems that support IOMMU).

          • by drinkypoo (153816)

            People who are interested in security won't stop at buying just software to get it. And the hardware isn't all that hard to come by anyway; just make sure the system has Intel sandy bridge or newer and also supports vPro.

            When reading up on this issue I discovered that my CPU has an IOMMU (Phenom II X6) but my motherboard has no support due to the chipset. If the situation is more straightforward on intel, more power to them.

  • .. so the 3/4G modem software cannot connect to that Chinese IP during startup.
    • by Anonymous Coward

      methinks you don't understand driver models

      [ WIRE ] [ DEVICE ] [ DRIVER ] [KERNEL] [FIREWALL] [APPLICATION]

      sometimes firewall and kernel have swapped location depending on OS

  • The 3G and 4G products here in the US are made by Samsung, Novatel, Sierra Wireless, and others. None that I could find were made by Chinese manufacturers Huawei and ZTE.

    This article only applies to Russia where those things are even available. Headline should read "Russian Mobile Providers' 3G and 4G USB Modems Are Security Threat, Black Hat Presenter Says"

    But with that headline, nobody would care or read the article.
    • Search harder (Score:5, Informative)

      by dutchwhizzman (817898) on Saturday March 16, 2013 @02:41PM (#43192037)
      ZTE and Huawei products are in fact for sale in the USA and Europe as well. I don't know about South America, but I presume you can get them there as well. Maybe the major US telco's don't bundle ZTE or Huawei products with their 3G/4G offerings, but the hardware is for sale for certain. Several EU operators (notably Vodafone) bundle these products. Assuming that because you don't see the products in the USA they are only available in Russia is kind of short sighted, the world is more than just Russia and the bundled hardware you get in the USA, you know?
    • by m00j (801234)
      Here in Australia Huawei and ZTE modems seem to be the only thing available from the majority of providers. Certainly the three major carriers have them (or did six months ago when I last looked), and I haven't seen a non-Huawei or ZTE modem from any of the MVNO.

      Perhaps because in the USA you have different frequency bands?
  • by Compaqt (1758360) on Saturday March 16, 2013 @03:06PM (#43192187) Homepage

    Would this be the right place to complain about evil modeswitching USB modems?

    Used to be when you got a piece of hardware, you'd get a CD with the drivers on it. Later on, somebody got the idea to include USB modem drivers right on the device itself, since it's USB anyway.

    The way they implement this is to make the device into a USB Storage Device upon bootup. Then, depending on circumstances, it switches the mode to a USB modem.

    This is evil because the protocol isn't totally well defined, and it usually works well only on a particular version of Windows.

    Linux tries to cope, but it doesn't always work.

    The article which is the subject of this thread just seems to confirm that these companies just make it up as they go along, and then pump out millions of copies of the same thing.

    • by gl4ss (559668)

      hmmh? the way the dongles I used couple of years worked as both at the same time(as a modem and as a drive).

    • by Sigg3.net (886486)

      I haven't had any issue with Huawei and ZTE dongles from 2006-today on Ubuntu 1204.

      I support these dongles in my weekemd work @ a major ISP. Our lab has a Ubuntu machine.

      (No official Linux support AFAIK, which is weird, because all our issues are Win/Mac which both struggle with these. I've had Linux calls but that's usually to ask whether it's necessary to use the ISP software.)

  • I don't really care if they spy on my modem, but I don't want their paws inside my hardware. Are there any ethernet-connected devices? I've seen some WiFi-based ones, which should be fine, but it overly complicates the matter and adds additional power requirements which wouldn't be useful.

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