NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. – Computer scientists at Rutgers
University have shown how a familiar type of personal computer security threat
can now attack new generations of smart mobile phones, with the potential to
cause more serious consequences.
The researchers, who are presenting their findings at a
mobile computing workshop this week in Maryland, demonstrated how such a
software attack could cause a smart phone to eavesdrop on a meeting, track its
owner’s travels, or rapidly drain its battery to render the phone useless.
These actions could happen without the owner being aware of what happened or
what caused them.
“Smart phones are essentially becoming regular computers,”
said Vinod Ganapathy, assistant professor of computer science in Rutgers’ School of Arts and Sciences. “They run the same
class of operating systems as desktop and laptop computers, so they are just as
vulnerable to attack by malicious software, or ‘malware.’”
Smart phones are cellular telephones that also offer
Internet accessibility, texting and e-mail capabilities and a variety of
programs commonly called “apps,” or applications.
Ganapathy and computer science professor Liviu Iftode worked
with three students to study a nefarious type of malware known as “rootkits.”
Unlike viruses, rootkits attack the heart of a computer’s software – its
operating system. They can only be detected from outside a corrupted operating
system with a specialized tool known as a virtual machine monitor, which can
examine every system operation and data structure.
Virtual machine monitors exist for desktop computers, but in
current form, they demand more processing resources and energy than a portable
phone can currently support.
Rootkit attacks on smart phones or upcoming tablet computers
could be more devastating because smart phone owners tend to carry their phones
with them all the time. This creates opportunities for potential attackers to
eavesdrop, extract personal information from phone directories, or just
pinpoint a user’s whereabouts by querying the phone’s Global Positioning System
(GPS) receiver. Smart phones also have new ways for malware to enter the
system, such as through a Bluetooth radio channel or via text message.
“What we’re doing today is raising a warning flag,” Iftode
said. “We’re showing that people with general computer proficiency can create
rootkit malware for smart phones. The next step is to work on defenses.”
In one test, the researchers showed how a rootkit could turn
on a phone’s microphone without the owner knowing it happened. In such a case,
an attacker would send an invisible text message to the infected phone telling
it to place a call and turn on the microphone, such as when the phone’s owner
is in a meeting and the attacker wants to eavesdrop.
In another test, they demonstrated a rootkit that responds
to a text query for the phone’s location as furnished by its GPS receiver. This
would enable an attacker to track the owner’s whereabouts. Finally, they showed
a rootkit turning on power-hungry capabilities, such as the Bluetooth radio and
GPS receiver to quickly drain the battery. An owner expecting remaining battery
life would instead find the phone dead.
The researchers are careful to note that they did not assess
how vulnerable specific types of smart phones are. They did their work on a
phone used primarily by software developers versus commercial phone users.
Working within a legitimate software development environment, they deliberately
inserted rootkit malware into the phone to study its potential effects. They
did not find a vulnerability that a real malware attacker would have to
The research team is presenting its findings at the
International Workshop on Mobile Computing Systems and Applications (HotMobile
2010). Working with Ganapathy and Iftode were Jeffrey Bickford and Ryan O’Hare,
who worked on the project as undergraduates, and Arati Baliga, who worked on it
as a postdoctoral researcher. The research was supported by the National
Science Foundation and the U.S. Army.
Media Contact: Carl Blesch