Chip and Pin is Definitely Not Safe

I’ve always had my doubts about Chip and Pin (or EMV to give it its proper name). We’ve all heard stories of people having cards stolen and used, when this should be impossible without the PIN. There are also credible stories of phantom withdrawals. The banks, as usual, stonewall; claiming that the victim allowed their PIN to be known, and that it was impossible for criminals to do this while you still had the card so someone close to you must be “borrowing” it.

In the old days it was very easily  to copy a card’s magnetic strip – to “clone” the card. Then all the criminals needed was the PIN, which could be obtained by looking over someone’s shoulder while they entered it. Cash could then be withdrawn with the cloned card, any time, any place, and the victim wouldn’t know anything about it. Chip and Pin was designed to thwart this, because you can’t clone a chip.

Well, it turns out that you don’t have to clone the card. All you need to do is send the bank the same code as the card would, and it will believe you’re using the card. In theory this isn’t possible, because the communications are secure between the card and the bank. A team of researchers at Cambridge University’s Computer Lab has just published a paper explaining why this communication isn’t secure at all.

I urge to you read the paper, but be warned, it’s unsettling. Basically, the problem is this:

The chip contains a password, which the bank knows (a symmetric key) and a transaction counter which is incremented each time the card is used. For an ATM withdrawal this data is encrypted and sent to the bank along with the details of the proposed transaction and the PIN, and the bank sends back a yes or no depending on whether it all checks out. It would be fairly easy to simply replay the transaction to the bank and have it send back the signal to dispense the money, except that a  random number (nonce) is added before its encrypted so no two transactions should be the same. If they are, the bank knows it’s a replay and does nothing.

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What the researchers found was that with some ATMs, the random number was not random at all – it was predictable. All you need do is update your transaction with the next number  and send it to the bank, and out comes the dough. It’s not trivial, but its possible and criminals are known to be very resourceful when it comes to stealing money from ATMs.

What’s almost as scary is how the researchers found all this out: partly by examining ATM machines purchased on eBay! (I checked, there are machines for sale right now). There’s a bit of guidance on what random means in the latest EMV specification; the conformance test simply requires four transactions in a row to have different numbers.

It’s inconceivable to me that no one at the banks knew about this until they were tipped off by the researchers earlier this year. Anyone with the faintest clue about cryptography and security looking at code for these ATMs would have spotted the flaw. This begs the question, who the hell was developing the ATMs?

In the mean time, banks have been trying to pretend to customers than phantom withdrawals on their accounts must be their fault and refusing to refund the money, claiming that Chip and Pin is secure. It’s not, and a day of reckoning can’t come too soon.

Credit for the research goes to  Mike Bond, Omar Choudary, Steven J. Murdoch,Sergei Skorobogatov, and Ross Anderson at Cambridge. Unfortunately they’re probably not the first to discover it as it appears the criminals have know about it for some time already.


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