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Reach Out and Hack Someone: Phone Flaw Exposed
Reach Out and Hack Someone: Phone Flaw Exposed

By Adam Dickter
July 27, 2012 9:30AM

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Security researcher Charlie Miller said that by using near field communications, it was possible to take advantage of a new feature for Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich) called Android Beam, taking control of the browser through NFC. He could then direct the phone to any Web site he chose.
 



Near field communication (NFC) is one of the great advances of mobile technology, offering a quick and convenient method of payment, as well as a means to share photos, documents and media between smartphones.

But can it also be a threat to your privacy or data security?

That's the question posed this week after a security researcher at this year's Black Hat computer security conference in Las Vegas succeeded in exploiting NFC to break into Samsung's top-shelf Nexus S device, as well as Nokia's N9 (pictured above), using an NFC-enabled chip.

Reports from the conference said the whiz was Charlie Miller, a researcher at Denver-based Accuvant Labs, and he was able to use an NFC chip to beam a code that caused the downloading of malware on the phones.

User Beware

Miller -- who last year was reportedly kicked out of Apple's developer program after creating an app that bypassed Apple's signing code to show that it could be done -- said it was also possible to take advantage of a new feature for Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich) called Android Beam, taking control of the browser through NFC. He could then direct the phone to any Web site he chose.

"What that means is with an NFC tag, if I walk up to your phone and touch it, or I just get near it, your Web browser, without you doing anything, will open up and go to a page that I tell it to," Miller told Ars Technica. "So instead of the attack surface being the NFC stack, the attack surface really is the whole Web browser and everything a Web browser can do. I can reach that through NFC."

Research firm Berg Insight said in March that 30 million NFC-enabled handsets were sold in 2011, and this year, it predicts, the number could top 100 million. By 2016 Berg predicts 700 million, while another firm, ABI Research predicts a smaller but still booming sum of 552 million by that year.

Apple's iPhone is considered likely to have the technology in its next incarnation, whenever that may arrive.

Samsung has been particularly aggressive with NFC, recently rolling out TecTiles, stickers containing coded information that, when detected, can prompt the Galaxy S III to execute commands such as texting or dialing or going to a selected Web site.

But can others with nefarious intent do the same using Miller's methods?

Dead Giveaway

"The short answer is that while there do seem to be security vulnerabilities with NFC, there's little evidence that they constitute a serious threat," Charles King, principal analyst of Pund-IT told us Friday.

"That's because the methodology involved -- physically tapping or getting very near the phone meant to be exploited -- would likely alert the owner that something was up. But in addition, since NFC simply isn't being used by large numbers of people, it would be difficult to find potential targets. Overall, I'd classify this as an interesting problem that's likely to be solved and fixed in fairly short order."
 

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