Mobile Pwn2Own Hackers Exploit NFC, Browsers and More

NEWS ANALYSIS: Information gleaned from the Mobile Pwn2Own event—what was and what wasn't exploited—could help improve mobile security in the future.

mobile security vulnerabilities

The annual Mobile Pwn2Own competition, sponsored by Hewlett-Packard's Zero-Day Initiative (ZDI) and held in Tokyo on Nov. 12 and 13, yielded some surprising results.

The mobile version of the Pwn2Own hacking challenge offers security researchers cash and prizes for successfully exploiting mobile devices. In the 2013 event, researchers exploited Android and iOS devices alike.

On the first day of the 2014 event, all the targets that were attacked were exploited. The exploited devices included a Samsung Galaxy S5, which was actually attacked twice, with two different exploits demonstrated against the phone's near-field communication (NFC) capabilities.

Samsung wasn't the only vendor that had its NFC technology exploited; researchers were also able to exploit the NFC features on an LG Nexus 5. Both the Samsung Galaxy S5 and the LG Nexus 5 are Android-powered devices.

In addition to NFC, mobile Web browsers were also a prime target at Mobile Pwn2Own 2014. Researchers took aim at the Amazon Fire Phone's Web browser and were able to exploit it successfully. Additionally, an Apple Phone 5S was successfully exploited via its included Safari Web browser.

While Apple's iOS and Google Android-based phones were attacked and exploited on the first day of the event, there was a mobile device operating system that was attacked but not actually fully exploited on the second day of the event.

Surprisingly, the unhacked mobile device was the Lumia 1520 Windows Phone. According to an HP blog post on the event, researcher Nico Joly was able to exfiltrate the cookie database from the Windows Phone; however, the operating system sandbox held, and he was unable to gain full control of the system.

That's interesting for a number of reasons. For one, it means that Windows Phone was able to successfully withstand the scrutiny of some of the world's best security researchers, while Android and iOS was not. It's also interesting that it was the sandbox that prevented the full exploit.

An operating system sandbox is intended to control access and limit risk from attacks or rogue application processes. The fact that the Windows Phone sandbox held back the full exploit could be an indicator of the technology's strength. Then again, it could just have been a question of time, as the Mobile Pwn2Own event is a live event and that can be a real pressure cooker for any researcher.

At the 2013 event, researchers from Keen Team were able to partially exploit iOS, but were not able to bypass the Apple sandbox. In 2014, the Apple sandbox did not hold back researchers from exploiting an iPhone 5S. If history is a guide, perhaps, we will see a research team come back in 2015 that is able to bypass the Windows phone sandbox.

Also of note is the emphasis overall on NFC-related exploits. The fact that not one, but two different Android phone vendors were exploited via NFC is a cause for concern, especially in an era when NFC is increasingly being considered as a payment technology.

Although it is somewhat worrisome that both iOS and Android mobile devices can be exploited, there is a silver lining to the Mobile Pwn2Own event.

The good news with Mobile Pwn2Own is that the vulnerabilities demonstrated by the security researchers are not likely to be exploited in the wild any time soon. HP buys the vulnerabilities from the researchers and then keeps them private, responsibly disclosing them to the affected vendors so they can fixed before any harm is done.

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at eWEEK and Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist.

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner is an Internet consultant, strategist, and contributor to several leading IT business web sites.