Breaking Smartphone NFC Firmware: The Gory Details

Near-field Communication (NFC) has been around a while and is used for example in access control, small data exchange, and of course in mobile payment systems. With such sensitive application areas, security is naturally a crucial element of the protocol, and therefore any lower-level access is usually heavily restricted and guarded.

This hardware is especially well-guarded in phones, and rooting your Android device won’t be of much help here. Well, that was of course only until [Christopher Wade] took a deep look into that subject, which he presented in his NFC firmware hacking talk at for this year’s DEF CON.

But before you cry out “duplicate!” in the comments now, [Jonathan Bennett] has indeed mentioned the talk in a recent This Week In Security article, but [Christopher] has since written up the content of his talk in a blog post that we thought deserves some additional attention.

To recap: [Christopher] took a rooted Samsung S6 and searched for vulnerabilities in the NFC chip’s safe firmware update process, in hopes to run a custom firmware image on it. Obviously, this wouldn’t be worth mentioning twice if he hadn’t succeeded, and he goes at serious length into describing how he got there. Picking a brain like his by reading up on the process he went through — from reverse engineering the firmware to actually exploiting a weakness that let him run his own code — is always fascinating and downright fun. And if you’re someone who prefers the code to do the talking, the exploits are on GitHub.

Naturally, [Christopher] disclosed his findings to Samsung, but the exploited vulnerability — and therefore the ability to reproduce this — has of course been out there for a long time already. Sure, you can use a Proxmark device to attack NFC, or the hardware we saw a few DEF CONs back, but a regular-looking phone will certainly raise a lot less suspicion at the checkout counter, and might open whole new possibilities for penetration testers. But then again, sometimes a regular app will be enough, as we’ve seen in this NFC vending machine hack.

2 thoughts on “Breaking Smartphone NFC Firmware: The Gory Details

  1. Extremely nice work, and very detailed. I’ve myself been trying to get the NFC chipset of the S8 to do my bidding, but never went as far as attacking it’s firmware. I’ll definitely try to play with this a bit!

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