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Aging Your Smartphones: How Attackers Do It

Aging Your Smartphones: How Attackers Do It

Mobile attackers have found a way to infect smartphones with a series of attacks that actually ages the integrated circuit components of devices, effectively causing them to wear themselves out. This is the subject of a research paper entitled “MAGIC: Malicious Aging in Circuits/Cores” by researchers from New York University (NYU).


According to the researchers behind the paper, the attackers’ aging tactics produce effects such as slow processing performance on the part of the affected smartphone, and even failure to function. As explained by Arun Kanuparthi, one of the authors of the research paper, integrated circuits built by tech companies are designed for long term use. But the aging process of integrated circuits has more to do with programs are being run on them. If they happen to run certain programs that are designed to wear them out, the aging process (degradation) is exponentially increased. The researchers are saying that some malicious programs can cause a smartphone to crash within a month.


But wait -- why would anyone want smartphones to crash? Kanuparthi and colleagues describe a scenario in which a customer purchases a new handset, and the manufacturer of that device reveals that they are launching a new version. Desiring to get the newer version, the customer downloads the malicious app, runs it on his device (which crashes in no time), goes to the phone maker, and trades the crashed handset for the new model.


Another scenario has something to do with obsolescence.  For instance, a phone maker who wants to achieve better sales for a newer handset might degrade an older handset’s performance on purpose in order to encourage customers to go buy the newer handset. Paranoid users may not just be imagining the impeccable timing of their smartphones slowing down processing wise just before a new version is about to be released in the market. 


There is one more scenario the researchers have described, and it involves governments. Let us say Country B buys military tech from Country A. As of the moment, Country A may have smooth relations with Country B, but in a decade or so, both countries may no longer be in good terms. The one who sold the tech, Country A, may proceed to intentionally age the tech they sold by maliciously installing a software patch that attacks the integrated circuits. 


The sad thing about the picture the research paper is painting is that it is not entirely impossible. For example, take a look at the recent Volkswagen scandal, wherein an embedded software is tricking emissions tests. So if you find your smartphone crashing just a few days before a new model is about to come out, the whole thing may not be one big coincidence.