Gemalto SIMs secured with magical cyber unicorns

March 2nd, 2015 by · Leave a Comment

This article was authored by Don Sambandaraksa, and was originally posted on

So in the end Gemalto issued a half-denial fudge of a press release on the reported GCHQ/NSA hacking of SIM encryption keys.

In a statement Gemalto said that the attack probably happened, but that only keys for older 2G SIMs were stolen and that, due to the high churn, few are probably in use today anyway.

“The investigation into the intrusion methods described in the document and the sophisticated attacks that Gemalto detected in 2010 and 2011 give us reasonable grounds to believe that an operation by NSA and GCHQ probably happened,” it stated.

But, “The attacks against Gemalto only breached its office networks and could not have resulted in a massive theft of SIM encryption keys.”

It went on to state that the keys stolen would only be of use to spy on 2G networks as 3G and 4G networks are not vulnerable to this kind of attack.

It also noted some discrepancies in the report and suggested that the hacks were on other SIM manufacturers in many cases, such as the case of the Somali network cited in the report in the The Intercept.

The reaction from the tech journalists and infosec professionals on social media ranged from contempt to ridicule to some light hearted laughter.

Gemalto 3G/4G SIMs must be “…ultra-mega super-magical. With extra cyber unicorns,” ZDNet Australia’s Stilgherrian said of its ability to be secure even though keys were compromised.

“A bizarre, half-denial/half-admission,” said the Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald.

“Gemalto CEO to western intelligence agencies: go ahead and hack us, we won’t sue you, even with damning evidence,” said Christopher Soghoian, principal technologist at the American Civil Liberties Union..

“GCHQ/NSA hacked your system, cyberstalked your employees and stole encryption keys without you knowing. Response: Everything is fine now,” mocked Jeremy Scahill who wrote the original story.

The list goes on.

Gemalto said its IT infrastructure was designed as a cross between an orange and an onion and that the hack only breached the outer office network. This triggered a wave of orange and onion memes on social media.

What is perhaps most incredulous about this press release is how Gemalto said its proprietary encryption system can be designed to survive key theft, unless of course it has magical cyber-unicorns in its design. As The Grugq said earlier, “It is like saying we make the best safes, never mind that the combination has been stolen”

The other point is that if this entire episode was indeed to eavesdrop on 2G networks, then the GCHQ’s top spy is probably indeed Rowan Atkinson’s Johnny English character.

Hackers demonstrated over the air 2G live interception with somewhat slow decryption with nVidia graphics cards at the 26th Chaos Computer Congress way back in 2009. A year later the same was demonstrated almost in real-time with nothing more than a normal laptop, a phone in debug mode and a rainbow table of half-calculated keys.

Suggesting that the GCHQ risked the UK’s reputation for something that could be done easily by any hacker in his bedroom already at the time of the operation is a joke..

But it is a joke that the smart suits on wall street seem to believe in. Gemalto’s share price is back up to €71.60, a tiny fraction under its price before the story broke. Who are we technological journalists and researchers to question the wisdom of the suits of wall street?

The emperor has no clothes. Now let us wait for that child to come along and point it out when the time is right.

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Categories: Other Posts · Security · Wireless

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