The Great SIM Heist
I have a simple question: Why is it a crime for someone to hack into Sony, Target, weather stations, etc., but not a crime for the NSA to hack into phone SIM card producers then steal every master key?
In my opinion, all of these hacks are illegal, and the NSA officials who authorized the hack I describe below belong in prison.
Please consider The Great SIM Heist
AMERICAN AND BRITISH spies hacked into the internal computer network of the largest manufacturer of SIM cards in the world, stealing encryption keys used to protect the privacy of cellphone communications across the globe, according to top-secret documents provided to The Intercept by National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden.
The hack was perpetrated by a joint unit consisting of operatives from the NSA and its British counterpart Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ. The breach, detailed in a secret 2010 GCHQ document, gave the surveillance agencies the potential to secretly monitor a large portion of the world’s cellular communications, including both voice and data.
The company targeted by the intelligence agencies, Gemalto, is a multinational firm incorporated in the Netherlands that makes the chips used in mobile phones and next-generation credit cards. Among its clients are AT&T;, T-Mobile, Verizon, Sprint and some 450 wireless network providers around the world. The company operates in 85 countries and has more than 40 manufacturing facilities. One of its three global headquarters is in Austin, Texas and it has a large factory in Pennsylvania.
In all, Gemalto produces some 2 billion SIM cards a year. Its motto is “Security to be Free.”
With these stolen encryption keys, intelligence agencies can monitor mobile communications without seeking or receiving approval from telecom companies and foreign governments. Possessing the keys also sidesteps the need to get a warrant or a wiretap, while leaving no trace on the wireless provider’s network that the communications were intercepted. Bulk key theft additionally enables the intelligence agencies to unlock any previously encrypted communications they had already intercepted, but did not yet have the ability to decrypt.
As part of the covert operations against Gemalto, spies from GCHQ — with support from the NSA — mined the private communications of unwitting engineers and other company employees in multiple countries.
Leading privacy advocates and security experts say that the theft of encryption keys from major wireless network providers is tantamount to a thief obtaining the master ring of a building superintendent who holds the keys to every apartment. “Once you have the keys, decrypting traffic is trivial,” says Christopher Soghoian, the principal technologist for the American Civil Liberties Union. “The news of this key theft will send a shock wave through the security community.”
According to one secret GCHQ slide, the British intelligence agency penetrated Gemalto’s internal networks, planting malware on several computers, giving GCHQ secret access. We “believe we have their entire network,” the slide’s author boasted about the operation against Gemalto.
“It’s unbelievable. Unbelievable,” said Gerard Schouw, a member of the Dutch Parliament, when told of the spy agencies’ actions. Schouw, the intelligence spokesperson for D66, the largest opposition party in the Netherlands, told The Intercept, “We don’t want to have the secret services from other countries doing things like this.”
All mobile communications on the phone depend on the SIM, which stores and guards the encryption keys created by companies like Gemalto. SIM cards can be used to store contacts, text messages, and other important data, like one’s phone number. In some countries, SIM cards are used to transfer money. As The Intercept reported last year, having the wrong SIM card can make you the target of a drone strike.
SIM cards were not invented to protect individual communications — they were designed to do something much simpler: ensure proper billing and prevent fraud, which was pervasive in the early days of cellphones.
One of the creators of the encryption protocol that is widely used today for securing emails, Adi Shamir, famously asserted: “Cryptography is typically bypassed, not penetrated.” In other words, it is much easier (and sneakier) to open a locked door when you have the key than it is to break down the door using brute force. While the NSA and GCHQ have substantial resources dedicated to breaking encryption, it is not the only way — and certainly not always the most efficient — to get at the data they want. “NSA has more mathematicians on its payroll than any other entity in the U.S.,” says the ACLU’s Soghoian. “But the NSA’s hackers are way busier than its mathematicians.”
SIM card “personalization” companies like Gemalto ship hundreds of thousands of SIM cards at a time to mobile phone operators across the world. International shipping records obtained by The Intercept show that in 2011, Gemalto shipped 450,000 smart cards from its plant in Mexico to Germany’s Deutsche Telekom in just one shipment.
In order for the cards to work and for the phones’ communications to be secure, Gemalto also needs to provide the mobile company with a file containing the encryption keys for each of the new SIM cards. These master key files could be shipped via FedEx, DHL, UPS or another snail mail provider. More commonly, they could be sent via email or through File Transfer Protocol, FTP, a method of sending files over the Internet.
The moment the master key set is generated by Gemalto or another personalization company, but before it is sent to the wireless carrier, is the most vulnerable moment for interception. “The value of getting them at the point of manufacture is you can presumably get a lot of keys in one go, since SIM chips get made in big batches,” says Green, the cryptographer. “SIM cards get made for lots of different carriers in one facility.” In Gemalto’s case, GCHQ hit the jackpot, as the company manufactures SIMs for hundreds of wireless network providers, including all of the leading U.S.— and many of the largest European — companies.
In Asia, Gemalto’s chips are used by China Unicom, Japan’s NTT and Taiwan’s Chungwa Telecom, as well as scores of wireless network providers throughout Africa and the Middle East. The company’s security technology is used by more than 3,000 financial institutions and 80 government organizations. Among its clients are Visa, Mastercard, American Express, JP Morgan Chase and Barclays. It also provides chips for use in luxury cars, including those made by Audi and BMW.
In 2012, Gemalto won a sizable contract, worth $175 million, from the U.S. government to produce the covers for electronic U.S. passports, which contain chips and antennas that can be used to better authenticate travelers.
PRIVACY ADVOCATES and security experts say it would take billions of dollars, significant political pressure, and several years to fix the fundamental security flaws in the current mobile phone system that NSA, GCHQ and other intelligence agencies regularly exploit.
A current gaping hole in the protection of mobile communications is that cellphones and wireless network providers do not support the use of Perfect Forward Security (PFS), a form of encryption designed to limit the damage caused by theft or disclosure of encryption keys. PFS, which is now built into modern web browsers and used by sites like Google and Twitter, works by generating unique encryption keys for each communication or message, which are then discarded. Rather than using the same encryption key to protect years’ worth of data, as the permanent Kis on SIM cards can, a new key might be generated each minute, hour or day, and then promptly destroyed.
The only effective way for individuals to protect themselves from Ki theft-enabled surveillance is to use secure communications software, rather than relying on SIM card-based security. Secure software includes email and other apps that use Transport Layer Security (TLS), the mechanism underlying the secure HTTPS web protocol. The email clients included with Android phones and iPhones support TLS, as do large email providers like Yahoo and Google.
“We need to stop assuming that the phone companies will provide us with a secure method of making calls or exchanging text messages,” says Soghoian.
That was a long snip, but from a very long article. There’s more in the article to see including how the NSA accomplished the hack.
For now, you should assume every conversation you have made since 2010 had been stolen. Nothing you do or say on your phone is private, not even in your own home.
I seem to recall a piece of paper, now meaningless, that supposedly guards against such seizures.
Seventh Article of Bill of Rights
The right of the People to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
Send them to Prison
The only way to stop this sh*t is to press charges, find the NSA guilty and send those responsible to prison.
Since Obama is unwilling to do what’s necessary, and given Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton won’t either, if you are outraged by this, I suggest voting for Rand Paul, the one person who has taken a stand on these issues.
In the meantime, act as if someone is listening to every conversation you make.
I go one step further given my outspoken nature on these issues. I act as if my entire house is bugged and the NSA is monitoring everything I do.
Mike “Mish” Shedlock