Physical Attack Can Breach Cryptographic Security for Mobile Devices

Researchers from the Check Point Institute for Information Security at Tel Aviv University have discovered that the encryption mechanism used for securing money transfers on mobile phones can be broken using a simple piece of $2 equipment.

Cryptographic software, intended to protect sensitive data on mobile phones, uses a digital signature algorithm, called ECDSA. This algorithm unintentionally exposes the cryptographic keys through physical side channels when used on a mobile device. The device experiences changes in its electromagnetic radiation, as well as in its power consumption, in accordance with the data it’s encrypting.

This means a cyber criminal could circumvent cryptographic security for mobile devices using a non-invasive attack method to steal sensitive information by using a simple probe that measures electromagnetic radiation. An additional attack vector could be connecting an improvised adapter to the phone’s USB cable. Both vectors do not require the attacker to write any code or to do anything aside from being in proximity to the device.

Researchers managed to extract signing keys successfully from OpenSSL and CoreBitcoin running on iOS devices. They have also witnessed a partial key leakage from OpenSSL running on Android and from iOS’s CommonCrypto. This could potentially put users using Bitcoin wallets or even Apple Pay accounts at risk.

The research can be found here.