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Charging phone on public USB can get you hacked

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Smartphones can be compromised when charged using a standard USB connection connected to a computer, Kaspersky Lab experts have discovered in a proof-of-concept experiment.

Have you ever wondered how safe your smartphone and data are when you connect the device to freely available charging points at airports, cafes, parks and public transport? Do you know what, and how much data your mobile device is exchanging with these points while it’s charging? Kaspersky Lab researchers became curious and conducted research to find the answers to these questions.

As part of this research, the company’s experts tested a number of smartphones running various versions of Android and iOS operating systems in order to understand what data the device transfers externally while connected to a PC or Mac for charging. The test results indicate that the mobiles reveal a whole litany of data to the computer during the ‘handshake’ (a process of introduction between the device and the PC/Mac it is connected to), including: the device name, device manufacturer, device type, serial number, firmware information, operating system information, file system/file list, electronic chip ID. The amount of data sent during the handshake varies depending on the device and the host, but each smartphone transfers the same basic set of information, like device name, manufacturer, serial number etc.

Now that smartphones almost always accompany their owner, the device serves as a unique identifier for any third party who might be interested in collecting such data for some subsequent use. But it wouldn’t be a problem if collecting a few unique identifiers was all that an attacker could do with a device connected to an unknown computer or charging device.

Back in 2014, a concept was presented at Black Hat that a mobile phone could be infected with malware simply by plugging it into a fake charging station. Now, two years after the original announcement, Kaspersky Lab experts have been able to successfully reproduce the result. Using just a regular PC and a standard micro USB cable, armed with a set of special commands (so-called AT-commands), they were able to re-flash a smartphone and silently install a root application on it. This amounts to a total compromise of the smartphone, even though no malware was used.

Although information about actual incidents involving fake charging stations has not been published, the theft of data from mobiles connected to a computer has been observed in the past. For example, this technique was used in 2013 as part of the cyberespionage campaign Red October. And the Hacking Team group also made use of a computer connection to load a mobile device with malware. Both of these threat actors found a way to exploit the supposedly safe initial data exchange between the smartphone and the PC it was connected to. By checking the identification data received from the connected device, the hackers were able to discover what device model the victim was using and to progress their attack with a specifically-chosen exploit. That would not have been as easy to achieve if smartphones did not automatically exchange data with a PC automatically upon connecting to the USB port.

“It is strange to see that nearly two years after the publication of a proof-of-concept demonstrating how a smartphone can be infected though the USB, the concept still works. The security risks here are obvious: if you’re a regular user you can be tracked through your device IDs; your phone could be silently packed with anything from adware to ransomware; and, if you’re a decision-maker in a big company, you could easily become the target of professional hackers,”  warns Alexey Komarov, researcher at Kaspersky Lab. “And you don’t even have to be highly-skilled in order to perform such attacks, all the information you need can easily be found on the Internet,” he concludes.

In order to protect yourself from the risk of possible attack through unknown charging points and untrusted computers, Kaspersky Lab advises the following:

·         Use only trusted USB charging points and computers to charge your device;

·         Protect your mobile phone with a password, or with another method such as fingerprint recognition, and don’t unlock it while charging;

·         Use encryption technologies and secure containers (protected areas on mobile devices used to isolate sensitive information) to protect the data;

·         Protect both your mobile device and your PC/Mac from malware with the help of a proven security solution. This will help to detect malware even if a “charging” vulnerability is used.

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Get your passwords in shape

New Year’s resolutions should extend to getting password protection sorted out, writes Carey van Vlaanderen, CEO at ESET Southern Africa.

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Many of us have entered the new year with a boat load of New Year’s resolutions.  Doing more exercise, fixing unhealthy eating habits and saving more money are all highly respectable goals, but could it be that they don’t go far enough in an era with countless apps and sites that scream for letting them help you reach your personal goals.

Now, you may want to add a few weightier and yet effortless habits on top of those well-worn choices. Here are a handful of tips for ‘exercises’ that will go good for your cyber-fitness.

I won’t pass up on stubborn passwords

Passwords have a bad rap, and deservedly so: they suffer from weaknesses, both in terms of security and convenience, that make them a less-than-ideal method of authentication.  However, much of what the internet offers is independent on your singing up for this or that online service, and the available form of authentication almost universally happens to the username/password combination.

As the keys that open online accounts (not to speak of many devices), passwords are often rightly thought of as the first – alas, often only – line of defence that protects your virtual and real assets from intruders. However, passwords don’t offer much in the way of protection unless, in the first place, they’re strong and unique to each device and account.

But what constitutes a strong password?  A passphrase! Done right, typical passphrases are generally both more secure and more user-friendly than typical passwords. The longer the passphrase and the more words it packs the better, with seven words providing for a solid start. With each extra character (not to mention words), the number of possible combinations rises exponentially, which makes simple brute-force password-cracking attacks far less likely to succeed, if not well-nigh impossible (assuming, of course, that the service in question does not impose limitations on password input length – something that is, sadly, far too common).

Click here to read about making secure passwords by not using dictionary words, using two-factor authentication, and how biometrics are coming to web browsers.

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Code Week prepares 2.3m young Africans for future

By SUNIL GENESS, Director Government Relations & CSR, Global Digital Government, at SAP Africa.

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On January 6th, 2019, news broke of South African President Cyril Ramaphosa’s plans to announce a new approach to education in his second State of the Nation address, including:

  • A universal roll-out of tablets for all pupils in the country’s 23 700 primary and secondary schools
  • Computer coding and robotics classes for the foundation-phase pupils from grade 1-3 and the
  • Digitisation of the entire curriculum, , including textbooks, workbooks and all teacher support material.

With this, the President has shown South Africa’s response to a global challenge: equipping our youth with the skills they’ll need to survive and thrive in the 21st century digital economy.

Africa’s working-age population will increase to 600 million in 2030 from a base of 370 million in 2010.

In South Africa, unemployment stands at 26.7 percent, but is much more pronounced among youths: 52.2 percent of the country’s 15-24-year-olds are looking for work.

As an organisation deeply invested in South Africa and its future, SAP has developed and implemented a range of initiatives aimed at fostering digital skills development among the country’s youth, including:

AFRICA CODE WEEK

Since its launch in 2015, Africa Code Week has introduced more than 4 million African youth to basic coding.

In 2018, more than 2.3 million youth across 37 countries took part in Africa Code Week.

The digital skills development initiative’s focus on building local capacity for sustainable learning resulted in close to 23 000 teachers being trained in the run-up to the October 2018 events.

Vital to the success of Africa Code Week is the close support it receives from a broad spectrum of public and private sector institutions, including UNESCO YouthMobile, Google, the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), the Cape Town Science Centre, the Camden Education Trust, 28 African governments, over 130 implementing partners and 120 ambassadors across the continent.

SAP’s efforts to drive digital skills development on the African continent forms part of a broader organisational commitment to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, specifically Goal 4 (“Ensure quality and inclusive education for all”)

A core component of Africa Code Week is to encourage female participation in STEM-related skills development activities: in 2018, more than 46% of all Africa Code Week participants were female.

According to Africa Code Week Global Coordinator Sunil Geness, female representation in STEM-related fields among African businesses currently stands at 30%, “requiring powerful public-private partnerships to start turning the tide and creating more equitable opportunities for African youth to contribute to the continent’s economic development and success”.

Click here to read more about the Skills for Africa graduate training programme, and about the LEGO League.

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