Great SIM Heist – docs reveal mass cell phone hack by Five Eyes intelligence

Pierluigi Paganini February 20, 2015

US and British intelligence services have stolen encryption keys of the major SIM card maker Gemalto to spy on mobile voice and data communications worldwide.

A new report published by The Intercept reveals that the National Security Agency and the British counterpart GCHQ obtained encryption keys of the global SIM manufacturer Gemalto, but the company was totally oblivious about the operation.

Once again a document leaked by the whistleblower Edward Snowden reveal the invasive operation of the Intelligence, a 2010 doc confirms that by obtaining the encryption keys of the SIM card maker, the intelligence services are able to monitor a large portion of global communications over mobile devices.

Once again, the problem is that the intelligence can spy on mobile users without using a warrant or wiretap.

“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.” reads the report published by The Intercept.

NSA GCHQ Snowden leaked document

The Intelligence Agencies targeted Gemalto because it makes the chips used in mobile phones and next-generation credit cards in 85 countries and has more than 40 manufacturing facilities worldwide. Sim cards produced by Gemalto are used by 450 wireless network providers, including AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon and Sprint, the possible exposure of the world’s telephonic communications is disconcerting.

One of the slides seen by the journalists showed that the GCHQ violated the manufacturer’s network, then stealthily deployed malware that is believed to “have opened up access to the SIM card maker’s entire computer system.”

Gemalto produces some 2 billion SIM cards a year, and the NSA and the GCHQ can monitor mobile communications secretly, without 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.” continues the report

As part of the operations run by the Intelligence agencies against Gemalto, spies mined the private communications of unwitting engineers and other company employees worldwide.

The spies were also able to monitor email and traditional phone communications.

“is especially vigilant against malicious hackers and of course has detected, logged and mitigated many types of attempts over the years.” Gemalto “at present can make no link between any of those past attempts and what was reported by The Intercept,” A Gemalto spokeswoman said in an email to AFP.

“We take this publication very seriously and will devote all resources necessary to fully investigate and understand the scope of such highly sophisticated technique to try to obtain SIM card data.”

Meanwhile Paul Beverly, a Gemalto executive vice president, expressed his concern to The Intercept.

“I’m disturbed, quite concerned that this has happened,” said  Beverly “The most important thing for me is to understand exactly how this was done, so we can take every measure to ensure that it doesn’t happen again, and also to make sure that there’s no impact on the telecom operators that we have served in a very trusted manner for many years. What I want to understand is what sort of ramifications it has, or could have, on any of our customers.” He added that “the most important thing for us now is to understand the degree” of the breach.

The company highlighted that it was the target of the alleged hack operated by the Intelligence, because spies were acting to monitor the largest number of mobile devices.

“not Gemalto, per se — it was an attempt to try and cast the widest net possible to reach as many mobile phones as possible.”

The report published by The Intercept also states that GCHQ targeted the core networks of an unnamed cellular company, the operation gives it the access to “sales staff machines for customer information and network engineer machines for network maps.”

“Most significantly, GCHQ also penetrated “authentication servers,” allowing it to decrypt data and voice communications between a targeted individual’s phone and his or her telecom provider’s network. A note accompanying the slide asserted that the spy agency was “very happy with the data so far and [was] working through the vast quantity of product.””

The NSA did not comment the news.


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Pierluigi Paganini

(Security Affairs –  Great SIM Heist, NSA, intelligence, Gemalto)

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