Smart­phone Replace­ment Parts might be Spy­ing on You


If cracking your smartphone’s touchscreen wasn’t bad enough, researchers have found out a new security threat that might emerge out following the replacement of your touch screen as it has been found out that the replaced units might contain hardware that could hijack a device.

Touchscreen Hack

A paper presented by researchers at Ben-Gurion University of Negev, Israel, at the 2017 Usenix Workshop on Offensive Technologies, shows how smartphone replacement units can be a security risk for the user.

According to the researchers, devices with cracked touchscreens or even other damaged components are prone to security risks as the replaced parts installed by a repair shop might contain additional hardware that can hijack the device and track usage, log keystrokes, install other malicious apps, access files and more.

“Attacks by malicious peripherals are feasible, scalable, and invisible to most detection techniques. A well-motivated adversary may be fully capable of mounting such attacks on a large scale or against specific targets,” the researchers wrote.

They also mentioned that smartphone manufacturers and OEMs should work towards designing the hardware components that could not be penetrated so easily.

The paper mentions that this malicious replacement might not be true when considering that certain companies have authorised service centers which sell genuine replacement parts, but is a factor since there are a lot many more third-party repair shops.

1 in every 5 smartphones have a broken touchscreen.

The researchers used the Huawei Nexus 6P running on Android 6.0.1 and containing the Synaptics S3718 touch controller to demonstrate the attack.

According to a study, cited in the research, “50 percent of global smartphone owners have damaged their phone at least once and 21 percent of global smartphone owners are currently using a phone with a cracked or shattered screen”.

Why Should Indian Users be Concerned?

India and many other developing countries mostly have third-party service and repair shops which may or may not be dealing with genuine spare parts.

These shops aren’t contracted by the smartphone manufacturers and so there is no way to ascertain if the replacement parts are genuine and if or not their motives are malicious.

How to Protect Your Device?


According to the researchers, the best way to protect your device against such exploits is to install another piece of hardware which can fight a spyware-ridden hardware.

They suggest “implementing a low-cost, hardware-based solution in the form of I2C interface proxy firewall. Such a firewall can monitor the communication of the I2C interfaces and protect the device from attacks originating from the malicious screen”.

“Placing this device on the motherboard means that it will not be affected by malicious component replacement. The use of a hardware countermeasure allows for protection against both added malicious components and modified firmware attacks,” the researchers added.

Are Only Android Devices Vulnerable?

Not really. While the researchers used an Android-powered device to carry out their research, the attack was carried out by introducing malicious hardware into the device. The same could be possible on a device running any other operating system like iOS.

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Bike enthusiast, traveller, ManUtd follower, army brat, word-smith; Delhi University, Asian College of Journalism, Cardiff University alumnus; a journalist breathing tech these days.