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The Samsung Galaxy back-door was bullshit. Really?

Written by Paul Kocialkowski - 15 march 2014 - 18 comments

A few days ago, I disclosed (on behalf of the Replicant projet) our research regarding a back-door found in a proprietary program running on Samsung Galaxy devices' applications processor. This back-door lets the modem perform I/O operations on the device's storage.

For the full statement, please refer to the article posted at Free Software Foundation's website. The relevant technical analysis is available at the Replicant wiki and a complementary statement was issued at the Replicant blog.

In the few hours following the publication, an outstanding number of technology-oriented websites relayed the news, including Phoronix, Slashdot, LWN and XDA-Developers. I'm very glad the press found interest in that research and I'm confident it'll help more and more individuals realize the importance of being in control of their computing: that is, to understand what's at stake with free software.

A few recent developments particularly caught my attention: Ars technica bothered to ask an actual security researcher, Dan Rosenberg his thoughts on our findings. Good thing they decided to go deeper than only duplicating the information. On the other hand, Samsung issued a statement about this issue:

Samsung takes the security of its products extremely seriously. We have investigated the claims that have been made and can confirm that there is no security risk. The Free Software Foundation’s recent allegations are based on a false understanding of the software feature that enables communication between the modem and the Application Processor chipset.

Mostly, the point that is argued by Dan Rosenberg is that there is no evidence of any ability for a remote party to use the back-door, nor any known exploit to make use of it remotely. As a matter of fact, we didn't look at how this could be used over the air: this was not the point of our research. The problem we intended to highlight is not so much about how in practical terms an intruder could use this anti-feature remotely to access and modify the data stored on the device, but rather to show that a particular proprietary software implements a feature that could be used to let the modem gain data I/O access over the device. This is where we find the back-door to be: at the interface between the modem and the applications processor. We do consider the modem to be an “unknown” area that offers no guarantee at all regarding security, since it is running proprietary software. Hence, we believe it is relevant to assume the worse and consider it compromised and subject to remote control. Several indications tend to make us think this is actually what is going on: Craig Murray described how a mobile phone had been remotely converted to a spying device in Murder in Samarkand. Considering the recent revelations regarding the practices of several governments' intelligence agencies, we find it hard to believe there is no way modems cannot be remotely compromised.

The goal of our action was to make people aware of that particular issue. One might consider it to have no value, provided they don't think modems can be remotely compromised and others might see it as a crucial security flaw in the event the modem is compromised, as we do. The fact that it was implemented for another purpose or was not intended to be used in malicious ways doesn't change anything at all: an attacker with remote access to the modem will be able to issue the incriminated requests. There is no possible “false understanding”, in the way Samsung seems to imply here.

For the record, we didn't at any point intend to distort the truth to bring attention to our project or our research, nor did we intend to ruin Samsung's reputation. We simply felt it was our moral responsibility to spread the word about it. I believe anyone can decide for themselves whether they have faith in Samsung's good word that this introduces no further security risk, but let it be clear that it doesn't get any more certain than what good faith can provide. We are still looking forward to working with Samsung to make things right, in case they decide to abandon their current position of denial.