I recently wrote about the topic of SIM swapping on my company’s site. This was also posted to the GSMA’s Fraud & Security Group blog. There has been an increase in the amount of awareness of the issue over the last 18 months or so and I expect that to continue throughout 2020. Some factors are driving it – the recently published Princeton paper is probably the first scientific analysis of these problems, especially on the social engineering aspect. Others are the sheer life impact as I describe in my earlier blog – either a huge loss of money or life-takeover of all the victim’s online accounts.
Some feedback I received from industry colleagues on Linkedin is worth mentioning:
- While I refer to ‘SIM swap’ – because that is the colloquial term we all understand, what is really happening is a re-assignment of the user’s credentials to access services, by the operator to another SIM card, rather than a specific issue with the SIM itself. It’s primarily a process and procedural issue.
- Like many other cyber security issues we face (not just in telecoms), particularly for trans-national issues, there is almost a complete absence of law enforcement. I’m not just talking about action, but even basic interest would be useful. Where it comes to technical topics, it can be very difficult for the victim to describe it to the Police, but a lack of Police training and structure for dealing with cyber security issues means ultimately criminals get away with it. This perpetuates the cycle of crime. If it’s international, then probably nothing will happen.
- The authentication of the real user is at the core of the issue – improving these procedures in line with the increased attack surface and asset value is overdue.
- SMS 2FA is not the solution that should be recommended because SS7 is too vulnerable – I actually disagree with this one on the basis that as an interim solution it is easy for operators to deploy and would raise the bar significantly. SS7 attacks are much more difficult to conduct than social engineering and it ignores the fact that SS7 monitoring, controls and firewalls in-line with GSMA guidance have been and are being implemented across the world.
- One side-point was made that SMS 2FA isn’t 2FA because the phone number isn’t something the user controls. I think this is not correct – the second factor is really a combination of “something you have (the phone that receives the message)” and “something you know (the code that is sent)”. This point also kind of ignores the practicalities of the problem – you need something that is going to work for millions of users. SMS 2FA is still the easiest and least worst solution for this. Arguably you’re sending the message ‘in-band’ and associated with the thing that is being targeted, however logically, at that point it is under the control of the authentic user. These days there are other channels the operator could possibly use which are sort-of ‘out-of-band’ and they should explore these – i.e. Whatsapp, Signal messages or using an authenticator app such as Duo. I would argue that at least for the last two of these, they’re still quite niche for the ordinary user and that raises complexity in the customer service chain, ultimately actually reducing security. It would also have to carefully thought through – attackers don’t remain static.
- One point was made that “We have to stop knitting new applications with old technology” and “Same horse same speed… ” – I and others would agree with this. With 5G we had a real opportunity to make a clean break from legacy technologies, however it hasn’t happened. We’ll carry some of those problems with us. I guess there are some similar analogies to replacing lead pipes in houses and cities – it is an economic and practical upgrade problem. We’ll get there I think.
- Other comments talked about regulation and putting the liability onto operators for the financial losses of users. It is really not that simple in my view. If the target of the service is someone’s email or breaking into the bank – does the network operator retain sole liability for that? We also have to remember that the issue here is the criminals doing this – let’s focus on them a bit more and start prosecuting them.
The UK’s National Cyber Security Centre has an excellent and pragmatic guide for enterprises using SMS: ‘Protecting SMS messages used in critical business processes‘.