Mobile communications, the most vital toys for the automatons of the modern world

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Every “smart”-phone or other device with mobile communications capability (e.g. 3G or LTE) runs two operating systems. Aside from the operating system that the end-users see (Android, iOS, PalmOS), it also runs a small operating system that manages everything related to radio. Since this functionality is highly timing-dependent, a real-time operating system is required.
This operating system is stored in firmware, runs on the baseband processor and this baseband RTOS is always entirely proprietary.
For instance, the RTOS inside Qualcomm baseband processors (in this specific case, the MSM6280) is called AMSS, built upon their own proprietary REX kernel, and is made up of 69 concurrent tasks, handling everything from USB to GPS. It runs on an ARMv5 processor.
These baseband processors, and the proprietary (closed) software they run; are poorly understood, as there’s no peer review. This is weird, considering just how important these software are to the functioning of a modern communication device.
You may have the most secure mobile operating system in the world, but you’re still running a second operating system that is not understood, poorly documented and proprietary.
The standards that govern how these baseband processors and radios work were designed in the ’80s, ending up with a complicated codebase written in the ’90s – complete with a ’90s attitude towards security. For instance, there is barely any exploit mitigation, so exploits are free to run amok. What makes it even worse, is that every baseband processor inherently trusts whatever data it receives from a base station (e.g. in a cell tower). Nothing is checked, everything is automatically trusted. Lastly, the baseband processor is usually the master processor, whereas the application processor (which runs the mobile operating system) is the slave.
So, we have a complete operating system, running on an ARM processor, without any exploit mitigation (or only very little of it), which automatically trusts every instruction, piece of code, or data it receives from the base station you’re connected to.

Security researcher Ralf-Philipp Weinmann of the University of Luxembourg set out to reverse engineer the baseband processor software of both Qualcomm and Infineon, and he easily spotted loads and loads of bugs, scattered all over the place, each and every one of which could lead to exploits – crashing the device, and even allowing the attacker to remotely execute code, all over the air.
Base stations are becoming a lot cheaper, and are being sold on eBay – and there are even open source base station software packages. Such base stations can be used to target phones. Put a compromised base station in a crowded area – or even a financial district or some other sensitive area – and you can remotely turn on microphones, cameras, place rootkits, place calls/send SMS messages to expensive numbers, and so on. Yes, you can even brick phones permanently.
This is such low-level, complex software that very few people in the world actually understand everything that’s going on here.
That complexity is exactly one of the reasons why it’s not easy to write your own baseband implementation. The list of standards that describe just GSM is unimaginably long – and that’s only GSM. Now you need to add UMTS, HSDPA and so forth. Everything is covered by a ridiculously complex set of patents. To top it all off, communication authorities require baseband software to be certified.
It’s easy to see why every cellphone manufacturer just opts for an off-the-shelf baseband processor and associated software. This does mean that each and every feature and smartphone has a piece of software that always runs (when the device is on), but that is essentially a black box.
Mobile communications (the most vital toys for the automatons of the modern world in both developed and developing regions) pivots around software that is of dubious quality, poorly understood, entirely proprietary, and wholly insecure by design.

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