Security researchers have discovered more than 400 pieces of vulnerable code inside the Qualcomm Snapdragon digital signal processor (DSP) chip that powers millions of high-end smartphones from Google, Samsung, LG, Xiaomi, OnePlus, and other device manufacturers.
The DSP is a system on a chip with hardware and software designed to support different smartphone capabilities, such as "quick charge," multimedia features like video and HD capture, and different audio features. Nearly all modern smartphones have one of these chips.
Qualcomm's Snapdragon chip is among the most common in Android smartphones, note the Check Point researchers who found the vulnerabilities they collectively dubbed "Achilles." Its popularity is why researchers decided to explore it, says head of cyber research Yaniv Balmas.
More than 400 vulnerable pieces of code were found in the DSP chip the researchers tested. An attacker could exploit these to take advantage of a target smartphone in several ways. One possible attack could involve turning the phone into a spying tool and exfiltrate data, including photos, videos, call recording, real-time microphone data, GPS, and location without user interaction.
Alternatively, an attacker could exploit these vulnerabilities to render a target phone constantly unresponsive and ensure photos, videos, contact details, and other information stored on the phone is permanently unavailable — "in other words, a targeted denial-of-service attack," wrote Check Point researchers in a blog post on their findings. Malware and other malicious code in these attacks can conceal the attackers' activity and become unremovable, they added.
To successfully launch any of these, an attacker would need to create a malicious application and then convince the user to download it. However, the process involves multiple flaws.
"Exploitation is not difficult to perform once you understand the entire ecosystem, but it is composed of many moving parts — an attacker would need to understand each of these parts in depth and chain multiple vulnerabilities in order to make use of them," Balmas explains. n
Most of these issues were introduced during compile time, he adds, meaning that even if someone wrote a secure DSP application, the vulnerabilities will be inserted when a user tries to compile it. Check Point is withholding the full technical details of these vulnerabilities until mobile vendors create a solution to mitigate the range of possible risks, the researchers report.
Researchers shared their findings with Qualcomm, which notified the relevant device vendors and assigned the following CVEs: CVE-2020-11201, CVE-2020-11202, CVE-2020-11206, CVE-2020-11207, CVE-2020-11208, and CVE-2020-11209.
Qualcomm responded to the vulnerabilities by issuing a new compiler and a new software development kit, as well as other workarounds, Balmas notes. But this isn't the end — these vulnerabilities affect millions of Android phones; now, it's on manufacturers to provide additional fixes and fully protect users.
"For vendors, it means they will need to recompile each and every DSP application they use, test them, and fix any issues [that] may occur," Balmas explains. "Then they need to ship these fixes to all devices in the market." This may prove to be a long process, he adds, and many vendors will need to do it. Full mitigation is expected to take at least a few months — "probably a lot more," he adds.
While DSP chips enable more functionality on modern smartphones, they also represent a new mobile attack vector. The barrier to entry is high for attackers, Balmas says, but once someone gains the relevant knowledge, a DSP becomes the "perfect target." Unlike the main operating system, there are no current mobile solutions designed to protect the software on chip (SoC).
"DSP chips are much more vulnerable to risks as they are being managed as 'Black Boxes' since it can be very complex for anyone other than their manufacturer to review their design, functionality or code," researchers explain in their write-up.
In a statement, Qualcomm says there is no evidence the vulnerabilities have been exploited in the wild.
"Regarding the Qualcomm Compute DSP vulnerability disclosed by Check Point, we worked diligently to validate the issue and make appropriate mitigations available to OEMs," a spokesperson says. Users are encouraged to update their devices as patches become available and to only install applications from trusted locations such as the Google Play Store.
Security researcher Slava Makkaveev shared more about the Achilles research in a DEF CON talk published this week.