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An Empirical Study of Wireless Carrier Authentication for SIM Swaps

Publication Type: 
Academic Writing
Publication Date: 
January 10, 2020

Abstract

We examined the authentication procedures used by five prepaid wireless carriers when a customer attempted to change their SIM card. These procedures are an important line of defense against attackers who seek to hijack victims’ phone numbers by posing as the victim and calling the carrier to request that service be transferred to a SIM card the attacker possesses. We found that all five carriers used insecure authentication challenges that could be easily subverted by attackers. We also found that attackers generally only needed to target the most vulnerable authentication challenges, because the rest could be bypassed. In an anecdotal evaluation of postpaid accounts at three carriers, presented in Appendix A, we also found—very tentatively—that some carriers may have implemented stronger authentication for postpaid accounts than for prepaid accounts. To quantify the downstream effects of these vulnerabilities, we reverse-engineered the authentication policies of over 140 websites that offer phone-based authentication. We rated the level of vulnerability of users of each website to a SIM swap attack, and we plan to publish our findings as an annotated dataset.1 Notably, we found 17 websites on which user accounts can be compromised based on a SIM swap alone, i.e., without a password compromise.

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