Since the coinage of the term in 1956, Artificial Intelligence (AI) has evolved considerably. From its metaphorical reference in Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, to its most popular recent application in autonomous cars, AI has made a progressive shift, over the years. It influences all the major industries such as transportation, communication, banking, education, healthcare, media, etc.
When it comes to cybersecurity, AI is changing how we detect and respond to threats. However, with the benefits, comes the risk of the potential misuse of AI capabilities. Is the primary catalyst for cybersecurity, also a threat to it?
How do we use AI in our daily life?
Social media users encounter AI on a daily basis and probably don’t recognize it at all. Online shopping recommendations, image recognition, personal assistants such as Siri and Alexa, and smart email replies, are the most popular examples.
For instance, Facebook identifies individual faces in a photo, and helps users “tag” and notify them. Businesses often embed chatbots in their websites and applications. These AI-driven chatbots detect words in the questions entered by customers, to predict and deliver prompt responses.
How do malicious actors abuse and weaponize AI?
To orchestrate attacks, cyber criminals often tinker with existing AI systems, instead of developing new AI programs and tools. Some common attacks that exploit Artificial Intelligence include:
Misusing the nature of AI algorithms/ systems: AI capabilities such as efficiency, speed and accuracy can be used to devise precise and undetectable attacks like targeted phishing attacks, delivering fake news, etc.
Input attacks/ adversarial attacks: Attackers can feed altered inputs into AI systems, to trigger unexpected/incorrect results.
Data Poisoning: Malicious actors corrupt AI training data sets by poisoning them with bad data, affecting the system’s accuracy.
Examples of how AI can be weaponized
GPT-2 text generator/ language models
In November 2019, OpenAI released the latest and largest version of GPT-2 (Generative Pretrained Transformer 2). This language model has the training to generate unique textual content, based on a given input. It even tailors the output style and subject based on the input. So, if you input a specific topic or theme, GPT-2 will yield a few lines of text. GPT-2 is exceptional in that it doesn’t produce pre-existing strings, but singular content that didn’t exist before the model created it.
Drawbacks of GPT-2
The language model is built with 1.5 billion parameters and has a “credibility score” of 6.9 out of 10. The model received a training with the help of 8 million text documents. As a result, OpenAI claims that “GPT-2 outperforms other language models.” The text generated by GPT-2 is as good as text composed by a human. Since detecting this synthetic text is challenging, creating spam emails and messages, fake news, or performing targeted phishing attacks, among other things, becomes easier.
Image recognition software
Image recognition is the process of identifying pixels and patterns to detect objects in digital images. The latest smartphones (for biometric authentication), social networking platforms, Google reverse image search, etc. use facial recognition. AI-based face recognition softwares detect faces in the camera’s field of vision. Given its multiple uses across industries and domains, researchers expect the image recognition software market to make a whopping USD 39 billion, by 2021.
Drawbacks of image recognition softwares
Major smartphone brands are now using facial recognition instead of fingerprint recognition, in their biometric authentication systems. Since this cutting-edge technology is popular among consumers, cyber criminals have found ways to exploit it.
Tricking facial recognition: It has been demonstrated that Apple’s Face ID can be duped using 3D masks. There are also other instances of deceiving facial recognition with infrared lights, glasses, etc. Identical twins, such as myself, can swap our smartphones to trick even the most efficient algorithms, currently available.
Blocking automated facial recognition: As facial recognition depends on key features of the face, an alteration made to the features can block automated facial recognition. Similarly, researchers are exploring various ways by which automated facial recognition can be blocked.
For example: Researchers found that minor modifications to a stop sign confuses autonomous cars. If implemented in real life, these technologies could have severe consequences.
Poisoned training sets
Machine learning algorithms that power Artificial Intelligence, learn from data sets (training sets) or by extracting patterns from data sets.
Drawbacks of Machine Learning algorithms
Attackers can poison training sets with bad data, to alter a system’s accuracy. They can even “teach” the model to behave differently, through a backdoor or otherwise. As a result, the model fails to work in the intended way, and will remain corrupted.
In the most unusual of ways, Microsoft’ AI chatbot, Tay, was corrupted through Twitter trolls. Releasing the smart chatbot was on an experimental basis, to engage people in “playful conversations.” However, Twitter users deluged the chatbot with racist, misogynistic, and anti-semitic tweets, turning Tay into a mouthpiece for a terrifying ideology in under a day.
AI is here to stay. So, as we build Artificial Intelligence systems that can efficiently detect and respond to cyber threats, we should take small steps to ensure they are not exploited:
Focus on basic cybersecurity hygiene including network security and anti-malware systems.
Ensure there is some human monitoring/ intervention even for the most advanced AI systems.
Teach AI systems to detect foreign data based on timestamps, data quality etc.
To meet the growing needs of customers, banks are increasingly adopting Information Technology (IT) solutions, to carry out daily operations. Thus making them attractive targets for escalating cyber attacks. To ensure that Indian banks function in a cyber-resilient environment, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) issues regular guidelines. Hence, in one of its recent circulars, in addition to distinguishing cybersecurity from information security, the RBI advises banks to establish mechanisms for:
Continuous surveillance to protect personal data
A focused approach towards cybersecurity
Board/ Top Management to be aware of the bank’s threat quotient
Board/ Top Management to proactively monitor, share, and mitigate threats
The RBI guidelines advocate the following measures to help banks improve their overall security posture:
1. Provision for continuous surveillance
Cyber attacks are not preceded by warnings or timelines. Hence, the RBI recommends that banks set up continuous surveillance to stay abreast of emerging cyber threats.
XVigil helps you anticipate and mitigate threats
XVigil, CloudSEK’s digital risk monitoring platform, offers continuous monitoring across the surface and the dark web. Specifically focusing on: mentions of the bank, its brand, and its infrastructure.
2. Ensure protection of customer data
Financial institutions depend on technology to function smoothly. It also helps them deliver cutting-edge digital products to address their customers’ needs. However, in the process, banks collect customers’ personal and sensitive information.
Banks should take appropriate steps to ensure uncompromised confidentiality, integrity, and availability of this data. Moreover, as custodians of such information, it is incumbent on banks to preserve data, in transit and in storage, within their environment or that of third party vendors. To this end, banks should establish suitable systems and processes, across the data/ information lifecycle.
XVigil detects data leaks
XVigil proactively monitors the web for data leaks. Subsequently, it alerts banks to leaks involving their customers’ information, credit card details, or debit card details. The platform also reports 3rd party data leaks that could affect banks and their customers.
3. Report cybersecurity incidents to RBI
Banks also need to notify the RBI of all unusual cybersecurity activities and incidents, irrespective of the success or failure of the attempts.
XVigil generates reports to notify the RBI
XVigil prepares reports, listing major incidents that may be submitted to the RBI, adhering to compliance standards.
4. Manage inventory of IT assets
Banks need to maintain an up-to-date inventory of assets including their infrastructure and business applications.
XVigil scans your assets every day
XVigil performs daily asset scans, to track all internet-facing assets, including domains, sub-domains, IPs, WebApps, etc.
5. Prevent execution of unauthorized software
Banks should maintain an updated, and preferably centralized, inventory of authorized/ unauthorized software.
XVigil monitors for Shadow IT threats
XVigil runs infrastructure scans every day and alerts banks to any threats. As a result, it keeps Shadow IT threats in check.
6. Secure configuration
Banks must document and apply baseline security requirements/ configurations to all categories of devices.
XVigil detects misconfigured assets
XVigil detects and reports misconfiguration of internet-facing assets, in addition to the Open Web Application Security Project (OWASP) top 10 vulnerabilities.
7. Vendor risk management
Banks are accountable for appropriate management of security risks pertaining to outsourced and partner arrangements.
XVigil detects third-party leaks
XVigil monitors and reports on any third-party sources that leak sensitive information, thus fulfilling the RBI’s requirement to manage vendor risk.
8. Advanced real-time threat defence and management
The RBI advocates for banks to:
Build a robust defence system against the installation, spread, and execution of malicious code, at multiple points in the enterprise
Consider whitelisting of internet websites/ systems
Consider implementing secure web gateways with capabilities to deep scan network packets. Hence securing (HTTPS, etc.) traffic passing through the web/ internet gateway.
XVigil provides real-time alerts
XVigil monitors and provides real-time alerts, on threats that impact banks’ brand or infrastructure, from various sources across the surface web and the dark web. In addition, the platform scans open ports, misconfigured SSLs, leaky S3 buckets, and XSS vulnerabilities.
Banks have been advised to subscribe to anti-phishing/ anti-rogue apps or services from external service providers. Since, this will help them identify and take down phishing websites/ rogue applications.
XVigil detects and initiates takedowns
XVigil detects phishing/ rogue apps, fake domains, and fake social media accounts. CloudSEK also offers takedown of such phishing websites/rouge applications.
10. Data leak prevention strategy
Banks should develop a comprehensive data loss/ leakage prevention strategy to safeguard sensitive, proprietary, and confidential business and customer data.
XVigil monitors data leaks
XVigil scans for data leaks, including third-party leaks, and additionally gives banks timely and actionable threat intelligence.
11. Vulnerability Assessment, Penetration Test, and Red Team Exercises
Banks should conduct periodic vulnerability assessment and pen-testing exercises on all the critical systems, particularly the internet-facing ones.
XVigil runs periodic tests
XVigil runs basic level vulnerability assessments, as well as pen-testing exercises, every day. And subsequently alerts banks to open ports, misconfigured SSLs, leaky S3 buckets, and XSS vulnerabilities.
Banks must make arrangements for forensic investigation unless they have support.
CloudSEK offers forensic services and support
CloudSEK offers forensic services, together with unlimited support.
13. External Integration
While delivering services to customers, several stakeholders are involved directly or otherwise. Their experience is indispensable. Besides, their integration with multiple tools would give organizations a view of the entire security landscape. Thus, encouraging better decision making.
XVigil can be integrated with ease
XVigil can be easily integrated with multiple SIEMS, SOAR and other platforms. Thus giving banks a single view of their entire security landscape.
In the recent past, several security vulnerabilities have been discovered, in widely used software products. Since these products are installed on a significant number of devices, connected to the internet, it entices threat actors to develop botnets, steal sensitive data, and more.
In this article we explore:
Vulnerabilities detected in some popular products.
Target identification and exploitation techniques employed by intrusive threat actors.
Threat actors’ course of action in the event of identifying a flaw in widely used internet products/technology.
Popular Target Vulnerabilities and their Exploitation
Ghostcat: Apache Tomcat Vulnerability
All Apache Tomcat Server versions are vulnerable to Local File Inclusion and Potential RCE. The issue resides in the AJP protocol, which is an optimised version of the HTTP protocol. The years old vulnerability is vulnerable because of the component which handled a request attribute improperly. The AJP protocol, enabled by default, listens on TCP port 8009. Multiple scanners, exploit scripts, honeypots surfaced in a matter of days after the original disclosure by Apache.
Stats published by researchers indicate a large number of affected systems, the numbers being much greater than originally predicted.
Recently, Directory Traversal and RCE vulnerabilities, in Citrix ADC and Gateway products, affected at least 80,000 systems. Shortly after the disclosure, multiple entities (ProjectZeroIndia, TrustedSec) released PoC scripts publicly that engendered a slew of exploit attempts, from multiple actors in the wild.
Jira Sensitive Data Exposure
A few months ago, researchers found Jira Instances leaking sensitive information such as names, roles, email IDs of employees. Additionally, internal project details, such as milestones, current projects, owner and subscriber details, etc., were also accessible to anyone making a request to the following unauthenticated JIRA endpoints:
Avinash Jain, from Grofers, tested the vulnerability on multiple targets, and discovered a large number of vulnerable Jira instances, revealing sensitive data belonging to various companies, such as NASA, Google and Yahoo, and its employees.
Spring Boot Data Leakage via Actuators
Spring Boot is an open source Java-based MVC framework. It enables developers to quickly set up routes to serve data over HTTP. Most apps using the Spring MVC framework now also use the Boot utility. Boot helps developers to configure what components to add, and also to setup the Framework faster.
An added feature of the tool called Actuator, enables developers to monitor and manage their applications/REST API, by storing and serving request dumps, metrics, audit details, and environment settings.
In the event of a misconfiguration, these Actuators could be a back door to the servers, making exposed applications susceptible to breaches. The misconfiguration in Spring Boot Versions 1 to 1.4 granted access to Actuator endpoints without authentication. Although later versions secure these endpoints by default, and allow access only after authentication, developers still tend to ignore the misconfiguration before deploying the application.
The following actuator endpoints leak sensitive data:
performs a thread dump and returns the dump
returns the dump of HTTP requests received by the app
returns the app-logged content
commands the app to shutdown gracefully
returns a list of all the @RequestMapping paths
exposes all the Spring’s ConfigurableEnvironment values
returns application’s health information
There are other such defective Actuator endpoints, that provide sensitive information to:
Gain system information
Send requests as authenticated users (by leveraging session values obtained from the request dumps)
Execute critical commands, etc.
Webmin RCE via backdoored functionality
Webmin is a popular web-based system configuration tool. A zero-day pre-auth RCE vulnerability, affects some of its versions, between 1.882 and 1.921. This vulnerability enables the remote password change functionality. The Webmin code repository on SourceForge was backdoored with malicious code allowing remote command execution (RCE) capability on an affected endpoint.
The attacker sends his commands piped with Password Change parameters through `password_change.cgi` on the vulnerable host running Webmin. And if the Webmin app is hosted with root privileges, the adversary can execute malicious commands as an administrator.
Why do threat actors exploit vulnerabilities?
Breach user/company data: Data exfiltration of Sensitive/PII data
Computing power: Infecting systems to mine Cryptocurrency, serve malicious files
Botnets, serving malicious files: Exploits targeted at adding more bots to a larger botnet
Service disruption and eventually Ransom: Locking users out of the devices
Political reasons, cyber war, angry user, etc.
How do adversaries exploit vulnerabilities?
On disclosure of such vulnerabilities, adversaries probe the internet for technical details and exploit codes, to launch attacks. Rand corporation’s research and analysis on zero-day vulnerabilities states that, after a vulnerability disclosure, it takes 6 to 37 days and a median of 22 days to develop a fully functional exploit. But when an exploit disclosure comes with a patch, developers and administrators immediately patch the vulnerable software. Auto update, regular security updates, large scale coverage of such disclosures help to contain attacks. However, several systems run the unpatched versions of a software or application and become easy targets for such attacks.
Steps involved in vulnerability exploitation
Once a bad actor decides to exploit a vulnerability they have to:
Obtain a working exploit or develop an exploit (in case of a zero-day vulnerability)
Utilize Proof of Concept (PoC) attached to a bug report (in case of a bug disclosure)
Identify as many hosts as possible that are vulnerable to the exploit
Maximise the number of targets to maximise profits.
Even though the respective vendors patch vulnerabilities reported, upon searching GitHub or specific CVEs on ExploitDB, we can find PoC scripts for the issues. Usually PoC scripts require a host/ URL as an input and it measures the success of the exploit/ examination.
Adversaries identify a vulnerable host through their signatures/ behaviour, to generate a list of exploitable hosts. The following components possess signatures that determine whether a host is vulnerable or not:
Indexed Content/ URL
Many commonly used software has a specific default installation port(s). If a port is not configured, the software installs on a pre-set port. And in most cases a software installs on the default port. For example, most systems use default port 3306 to install MySQL and port 9200 for Elasticsearch. So, by curating a list of all servers with an open 9200 port, a threat actor can determine systems running the Elasticsearch. However, port 9200 can be used to install other services/ software as well.
Using port scans to discover targets to exploit the Webmin RCE vulnerabilities
Determining that the default port where Webmin listens to after installation is Port 10000.
Get a working PoC for the Webmin exploit.
Execute a port scan on all hosts connected to the internet for port 10000.
This will lead to a discovery of all possible Webmin installations that could be vulnerable to the exploit.
In addition, tools like Shodan make port-based target discovery effortless. At the same time, if Shodan does not index the target port, attackers leverage tools like MassScan, Zenmap and run an internet-wide scan. The latter approach hardly takes a day if the attacker has enough resources.
Similarly, an attacker in search of an easy way to find a list of systems affected by Ghostcat, will port scan all the target IPs and narrow down on machines with port 8009 open.
Software/ services are commonly installed on a distinct default path. Thus, the software can be fingerprinted by observing the signature path. For instance, WordPress installations can be identified if the path ‘wp-login.php’ is detected on the server. This facilitates locating the service as it accesses a web browser.
For example, when phpmyadmin utility is installed, by default it installs on the path ‘/phpmyadmin’. A user can access the utility through this path. In this case, a port scan won’t help, because this utility doesn’t install on a specific port.
Using distinct paths to discover targets to exploit Spring Boot Data Leakage
Gather a list of hosts that run Spring Boot. Since the default Spring Boot applications start on port 8080, it would help to have a list of hosts that have this port open. This allows threat actors to see a pattern.
Hit specific endpoints like ‘/trace’, ‘/env’ on the hosts and check the response for sensitive content.
Web path scanners and web fuzzer tools such as Dirsearch or Ffuf facilitate this process.
Though responses may include false positives, actors can use techniques, such as signature matching or static rule check, to constrict the list of vulnerable hosts. As this method operates with HTTP requests and responses, the process can be much slower than mass scale port scans. Shodan can also fetch hosts based on http responses, from its index.
Software are commonly installed on a specific subdomain since is an easier, standard, and convenient way to operate the software.
For example, Jira is commonly found on a subdomain as in ‘jira.domain.com’ or ‘bug-jira.domain.com’. Even though there are no rules when it comes to subdomains, adversaries can identify certain patterns. Similar services, usually installed on a subdomain, are Gitlab, Ftp, Webmail, Redmine, Jenkins, etc.
Security Trails, Circl.lu, Rapid7 Open Data hold passive DNS records. Other scanners that maintain such records would be sites such as Crt.sh and Censys. They collect SSL certificate records regularly and have an add-on feature that supports queries.
The content published by services is generally unique. If we employ search engines such as Google, to find pages based on particular signatures, serving specific content, the results will have a list of URLs running a particular service. This is one of the most common techniques to hunt down targets, easily.
It is commonly known as ‘Google Dorking’. For instance, adversaries can quickly curate a short list of all cPanel login pages. For which, they could use the following Dork in Google Search: “site:cpanel.*.* intitle:”login” -site:forums.cpanel.net”. The Google Hacking database contains numerous such Dorks and after understanding the search mechanism, it is easy to write such search queries.
There have been multiple honey pot experiments to study the mass scale exploration and exploitation in the wild. Setting up honey pots is not only a good way of understanding the attack patterns, it also serves in identifying malicious actors out there, trying to exploit systems in the wild. These identified IPs/ Network trying to enumerate targets or exploit vulnerable systems end up in various public blacklists. Various research attempts have set up diverse honeypots and studied the techniques used to gain access. Most attempts are to gain access via default credentials, and originated mainly from blacklisted IP addresses.
Another interesting observation is that, most honeypot detected traffic, seems to originate from China. It is also very common to see honeypots specific to a zero-day surface on Github as soon after a the release of an exploit. The Citrix ADC vulnerability (CVE-2019-19781) also saw a few honeypots being published on Github within a short time after the first exploit PoC was released.
Research carried out by Sophos highlights the high rate of activity on exposed targets using honeypots. As reported in the research paper, it took from less than a minute to 2 hours for the first attack on the exposed target. Therefore, if an accidental misconfiguration leaves a system exposed to the internet, for even a short period of time, it should not be assumed that the system was not exploited.
Payment gateways, such as Wibmo, CCAvenue, and PayUbiz, facilitate payments on thousands of online portals. And customers implicitly trust them to secure their transactions. But, as reported by a security researcher, a flaw in the logical design of a previous version of Wibmo payment gateway put its customers at risk. This was because the payment gateway did not distinguish between transactions initiated within the same time frame.
Payment gateways serve as a channel of communication, between merchants and banks, to conduct secure transactions. The gateway encrypts the transaction information, which includes the credit/debit card number, CVV, expiry date, etc. And passes on the information to the payment processor, which acts as the link between the user bank and merchant bank. The gateway confirms the payment, unless the information is incorrect. Then, the processor settles the payment with the merchant’s bank.
One Time Passwords for gateways
In order to secure transactions, 3-dimensional payment gateways add time-based One Time Passwords (OTPs) as an additional layer of authentication. The payment gateway only accepts time-based OTPs submitted within the permitted time frame. After which the OTP is not valid. Even though this additional layer of authentication should secure transactions, a vulnerable gateway, could reduce its efficacy. A payment gateway that is not able to distinguish between transactions, could permit unauthorized transactions.
Flaw in the design of Wibmo Payment Gateway
Wibmo fails to distinguish between transactions processed during a single 180 second time frame.
So, the OTP generated for a transaction is valid for other transactions, in the same time period. Irrespective of the amount or geo-location.
This vulnerability increases the possibilities of a man-in-the-middle attack (MITM) by which the attacker forges the request.
And if the OTP remains unused for the first few seconds or minutes, it allows attackers to conduct fraudulent transactions within the validity period of the OTP.
Explaining the flaw through a scenario
A user initiates a legitimate transaction for Re.1.
They receive an OTP, on their registered mobile number, which is valid for 180 seconds.
Before the user applies the OTP for that transaction, an attacker intercepts the OTP and uses it to process a transaction for Rs.1000. Irrespective of the attacker’s location, and transaction amount, the fraudulent transaction is considered legitimate. And the attacker successfully receives the amount.
Verification of the Wibmo Payment Gateway flaw
CloudSEK’s research team tested Wibmo with various banking systems to confirm the flaw. We found that the same OTP is valid for 180 seconds or more, for any transaction, provided the OTP has not been used already. The screenshots below prove the same:
With the increasing number of online transactions, flaws such as Wibmo’s make users vulnerable to threat actors. Apart from financial losses, it could impact the reputation of the payment gateway, and the online portals using it.
Note: Wibmo became aware of this flaw on the 3rd of August, 2019. The security team at Wibmo closed the issue and marked it as a known functionality on August 12, 2019. And publicly disclosed the flaw on August 25, 2019. Wibmo recommends that portals using its payment gateway should fix the vulnerability, to avoid security incidents.
We have all received calls from fake bank representatives, offering us complimentary credit card upgrades, free Insurance, and assistance to complete KYC (Know your customer) formalities. And to provide these services, they would have requested us for credit card or debit card details.
However, in the last few years, the general public has smartened up to this scam. And most of us don’t indulge these calls anymore. And in response to this, scammers have repackaged their scams, that are delivered to us, via other channels. The new schemes are so convincing that we reach out to them.
Let’s explore these sophisticated approaches and the various resources that allow scammers to continue defrauding us.
What makes us vulnerable?
Most people unequivocally rely on Google search for everything ranging from bank locations to restaurant reviews. So, it is only natural that scammers have started targeting Google services, to index bogus web pages that contain fake bank branches and customer care numbers. Also, it is simple to list a business on Google, because there is no detailed verification process. In 2018, police busted a scammer who was running a fake branch of Karnataka Bank in UP’s Ballia.
How are fake banking services provided?
The scammer buys a domain name that closely mimics the targeted bank. They replicate the bank’s trademarks, logos, and website design, to give it an air of authenticity.
They set up telephone numbers which are advertised on the fake website. The scammer goes the extra mile, to convince skeptical users, by mimicking original caller tunes, hold tunes, and following standard operating procedures.
Sometimes, scammers even set up interim branches and kiosks, employing people at different levels, so that it appears to be a legitimate operation.
They then list themselves on Google services with seemingly genuine location details.
When a customer searches for a bank branch or customer care number, these sites appear as top Google search results.
When the customer calls the fake number or visits a fake branch, scammers slip questions about CVVs (Card Verification Value) or ask for OTPs (One Time Password) in the middle of the conversation.
They may even advise users to download and install certain remote desktop sharing apps or open links that give them the control of the customer’s mobile device.
Scammers especially favour UPI (Unified Payment Interface) and other similar apps. They will ask for a victim’s UPI ID, and convince them to accept 1 rupee on the app. Wherein, instead of accepting money, unaware and inexperienced users, will in fact be remitting a large amount from their account.
Are there precautions we can take?
Stay abreast of scammers and the different types of online scams.
Proactively monitor the surface web and alert authorities of any scams you have identified.
Inform targeted banks about such scams. It will also help them to initiate the takedown of such sites and apps and ensure others don’t fall prey to these scams.
If you have concerns about your organization’s security posture, contact us: Request a Demo now.
Miscreants recently siphoned INR 4.57 million from Creative Engineers’ bank account. The attackers first hacked the proprietor’s gmail account and sent an email to Airtel to confirm the SIM swap. With access to his email and phone number, they were able to gain access to his internet banking credentials, to carry out the attack. The attackers employed SIM hijacking, which is the process of deactivating a SIM and appropriating a phone number, to pass the internet banking authentication.
If you have a phone, you are a target.
Other than being a convenient mode of communication, mobile phones also serve as authentication for a variety of services.
Since password protection alone could not secure accounts, we introduced 2 Factor Authentication, linked to our email or phone number, to protect sensitive accounts. This includes emails, online banking accounts, and cryptocurrency exchanges.
Time has come, to assess if 2 Factor Authentication is still ironclad. Given the success of attacks such as SIM hijacking, it looks like hackers have found a way to get around that as well.
SIM Hijacking is the process through which a hacker confiscates your phone number and deactivates your SIM card, rendering it non-functional.
Getting access to your SIM is usually just one part of a larger scam. In order to siphon your bank accounts or steal sensitive information, a hacker needs access to your account details also. Without which they cannot successfully bypass 2 Factor Authentication.
SIM Hijacking is also used to steal Instagram usernames that are then sold for Bitcoin. This form of attack, though not as rampant, should be monitored, considering the potential impact.
Sophisticated strategies to compromise a phone number
SS7 and Diameter attacks function by attacking the underlying telecom network/protocol. This allows an attacker to take over any phone number by intercepting SMS-based tokens, account recovery codes, and calls.
IMSI catchers are RF devices that enable an attacker to take over a phone number by intercepting and injecting cell traffic. This method requires physical proximity to the target.
Fig 3: ISMI catcher used for SIM hijacking
SIM Hijacking targets a carrier through conventional attacks, or by social engineering support staff, to take control of a phone number. This is known as SIM porting/hijacking, which is becoming increasingly popular with attackers.
Execution of SIM Hijacking
In India, hackers often contact victims, posing as executives from telecom companies, offering better network plans or discounts. They usually verify your full name, address, phone number, DOB, last four digits of social security number (SSN), Aadhaar number, or other security questions.
The attacker then tries to obtain your unique 20-digit SIM number and SIM swap authentication. For example: If you are a Vodafone user, the attacker will use a new Vodafone SIM to process the SIM exchange. Vodafone will send a confirmation SMS on your phone number. And the attacker will instruct you to press a digit to authenticate the SIM swap. Vodafone will then officially initiate the SIM swap.
Once the swap is successful, your SIM will stop working and won’t have cell reception. On the other hand, the attacker’s new SIM will be fully functional.
The attacker, in most cases, will already have your banking ID and password. All they need is the OTP to perform fraudulent financial transactions. Hijacking your number allows the attackers to pass the 2-step verification process. This gives the hacker access to your accounts across Google, Twitter, Facebook, O365, online banking, and crypto currency trading platforms.
Fig 4. Execution of SIM Hijacking
What if the hacker has an individual’s email ID but not their phone number?
With your email ID the hacker will initiate a password reset process for your accounts.
The hacker can reset your password using a link or a secret code received via email, SMS, or phone call.
To reset a password with an SMS or a phone call, the prompt displays part of the phone number. Depending on the platform, the number of digits visible, may vary. This is because there is no standardized way to mask personal identifiable information (PII) such as phone numbers. For example, Paypal reveals the first digit and the last four digits. While some other platforms show the first digit and the last 2 digits.
Similarly, the hacker will use your email on different platforms to reveal more digits of your phone number.
A typical Indian mobile number format is: “+91-XXXX-NNNNNN”. The first four digits indicate an operator’s code, while the remaining six digits are unique to the subscriber. The hacker narrows the options by detecting the operator code.
There are many ways an attacker can verify if the shortlisted phone numbers are linked to the email address:- Using search engines to check if you have posted your phone number on a forum, website, etc.,
– Employing online services such as Pipl or Spokeo that have huge databases with personal information
– Using telephone system online services that allow you to reverse search the owner of a phone by its number.
By abusing password reset options, and by brute-forcing using publicly available information, a hacker can obtain your complete phone number.
When the hacker has a phone number, this process is reversed, to obtain the corresponding email ID. Services such as Amazon and Twitter allow password reset using a phone number. For this, a verification link is sent to the associated email ID. The prompt for which, displays a few characters of the email ID. Amazon provides the first and last letter of the username and the full domain. Also, the number of masked characters reveal the length of the username.
While it is incumbent on telecom carriers to enforce stringent measures to prevent attacks that target phone numbers, it is also important for us, as mobile phone users, to be able to identify the signs of a SIM Hijacking attack.
You are a victim of SIM Hijacking if you:
Lose cell service for an extended period of time.
Get locked out of your email and social media accounts because the passwords have been reset.
Receive suspicious calls, during which the executive asks for your personal details or SIM number.
Another layer of security, while helpful in the short term, won’t be fool proof. As witnessed from the breach of previous security frameworks, hackers will find a way to circumvent the new layer of security as well. So, how do we shield ourselves against SIM Hijacking:
Use PIN based authentication. Most carriers offer the option to protect your accounts using a passcode or PIN.
Using an authentication app such as Google Authenticator instead of receiving the two-factor authentication code via SMS.
Link sensitive accounts to a separate phone number and keep it confidential.
Label email addresses and phone numbers. So that the hint prompt displays labels such as “Home phone”, instead of your phone number.
As evident from the recent attack on Creative Engineers, hackers are increasingly resorting to SIM hijacking. And being linked to the services we use every day, makes each of our phone numbers valuable targets.
While telecom operators need to bolster the security of their networks, as users, our best defense is awareness. We can protect ourselves by taking simple precautions and by understanding how scammers orchestrate such attacks.