Galaxy S3 hacked via NFC at Mobile Pwn2Own competition

Using this exploit attackers can take full control of a Galaxy S3 smartphone, researchers demonstrated

The Samsung Galaxy S3 can be hacked via NFC, allowing attackers to download all data from the Android smartphone, security researchers demonstrated during the Mobile Pwn2Own contest in Amsterdam on Wednesday.

Researchers from security company MWR Labs showed the audience at the Mobile Pwn2Own competition at the EUSecWest security conferenceA that it is possible to beam an exploit over a NFC (Near Field Communication) connection by holding two Galaxy S3s next to each other.

Using this technique, a file is loaded on the targeted S3. The file is then automatically opened and gets full permissions, meaning that the attacker has full control over the phone, explained Tyrone Erasmus, security researcher at MWR. The app runs in the background so the victim is unaware of the attack, he added.

The attacker, for instance, gets access to all SMS messages, pictures, emails, contact information and much more. The payload is very advanced, so attackers can "basically do anything on that phone," the researchers said.

The exploit is aimed at a document viewer application that comes as a default installed app on the Galaxy S2, S3 and some HTC phones, the researchers said. They wouldn't say which specific app is targeted because they did not want others to take advantage of the exploit. The vulnerability was tested on both the S2 and the S3, and worked on both phones, they said.

It should be noted though, that the vulnerability can also be exploited in other ways, the researchers said. The payload data can for instance be attached to an email message and have the same effect when downloaded, they said.

"We used the NFC method for showmanship," said Erasmus, who added that using NFC means that people can be targeted when they simply walk past a potential attacker. Though the phones must be very close to each other -- almost touching -- only a very brief connection is needed to upload the payload data, after which a Wi-Fi connection can be established, allowing the attacker to download information from the targeted phone, the researchers said.

The MWR team won $30,000 among other prizes for their hack. The technical details of the hack will be disclosed to Samsung by the Zero Day Initiative (ZDI) of HP DVLabs, which organized the competition. When that has happened the bug will probably be fixed, the researchers said.

"I think this is a highly dangerous threat factor," said Dragos Ruiu, organizer of EUSecWest, who added he was especially impressed by the scale of the exploit. Most Pwn2Own hacks only exploit a specific part of a mobile phone, like the browser, he said. "They demonstrated full ownage of the phone; that is exceptional," said Ruiu.

Dutch security researchers hacked an iPhone 4S earlier on Wednesday during the same Pwn2Own contest, showing how a malicious Web page can send all pictures, address book data and browsing history on the phone to a server of the attacker's choice by exploiting a hole in Safari's WebKit engine.

Loek covers all things tech for the IDG News Service. Follow him on Twitter at @loekessers or email tips and comments to loek_essers@idg.com

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