Cellphones vulnerable to rootkit attacks

Computer scientists at Rutgers University say they’ve found a major security threat to smartphones that could cause them to eavesdrop on meetings, track their owners’ travels, or rapidly lose all battery power.

Ganapathy’s team focused on rootkit attacks – potentially more devastating on a cellphone 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 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 Rutgers researchers showed how a rootkit could turn on a phone’s microphone without the owner knowing. 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 from 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. The owner would suddenly find the phone dead.

The researchers are careful to point out that they didn’t assess how vulnerable specific types of smartphone are, but worked on a phone used primarily by software developers.