Smart Phone and Tablet Problems Can Let Your Cloud Data Slip Out the Back Door

When you put your data “out in the cloud”, you will want to get it back eventually. Maybe even interact with it frequently.

You lost direct control and even the visibility of the control of your data when you moved it to the cloud. Just how much you lose depends on the cloud service model, as we discuss in Learning Tree’s Cloud Security Essentials course.

If you’re using Infrastructure as a Service or IaaS, that is very much like any off-site data center in which you maintain your servers remotely. But for many cloud customers, “the Cloud” means Software as a Service or SaaS, where all you see is the client application interface, usually through a web browser.

That client interface is the one thing that remains in your control. Increasingly, it is a tablet or smart phone. And we just discovered a big problem in one manufacturer’s products.

A smart phone has two processors, each running its own operating system. The general-purpose applications processor runs the main operating system, such as the open-source Android, or other open-source replacements such as CyanogenMod (which I use) or the Replicant project.

The other processor handles communication with the mobile telephony networks and is called the baseband, modem, or radio processor. The baseband processor always runs a proprietary operating system.

We don’t know all that much about the baseband OSes, but we do know that they contain backdoors which can activate the microphone and use the camera and GPS subsystems, as well as user data stored on the phone.

When your organization uses smart phones to access cloud data and services, that means that sensitive data tends to reside on the mobile device at least some of the time.

The Replicant project has found and closed a backdoor that allows the baseband processor on many Samsung models to read, write, and delete user data under remote control. If the baseband processor can modify the main OS, there is no way for a main processor operating system to really control things. It’s unclear if this backdoor is a bug or was intentionally included for data gathering.

Real solutions would require either an architectural design change to isolate the baseband system from the storage and applications (certainly possible, and obviously a good idea, but almost never seen in the market), or to replace a proprietary operating system with something that provides the same desired functionality without the backdoor (obviously a rather challenging project).

If you’re interested, and especially if you or your organization uses any of the effected Samsung models (Nexus S, Galaxy S, Galaxy S2, Galaxy S3, Galaxy Note, Galaxy Nexus, Galaxy Tab 2.7.0, Galaxy Tab 2.10.1, Galaxy Note 2, and possibly others), you will want to check out the details!

There are introductory stories in Information Week and The Register, among others. A blog post from the Replicant project serves as their announcement, and lots of technical details are available for an in-depth look.

It’s interesting to notice that this hole isn’t in open-source code, but the open-source nature of the application OS led to the discovery of a backdoor in a proprietary, closed system. Visibility is good.

Bob Cromwell

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