Visa and Apple Pay leave iPhone users vulnerable

  • October 13, 2021
  • Steve Rogerson

Vulnerabilities in Apple Pay and Visa could enable hackers to bypass an iPhone’s Apple Pay lock screen and perform contactless payments, according to research by the UK universities of Birmingham and Surrey.

Experts in the University of Birmingham’s School of Computer Science and the University of Surrey’s Department of Computer Science found their approach could also be used to bypass the contactless limit allowing transactions of any amount to be performed. Their results will be presented in a paper at the IEEE Symposium on Security & Privacy in May 2022.

The researchers discovered the vulnerability occurs when Visa cards are set up in Express Transit mode in an iPhone’s wallet. Transit mode is a feature on many smartphones that enables commuters to make a swift contactless mobile payment at, for example, an underground station turnstile, without fingerprint authentication.

The weakness lies in the ApplePay and Visa systems working together and does not affect other combinations, such as Mastercard in iPhones or Visa on Samsung Pay.

Using simple radio equipment, the team identified a unique code broadcast by the transit gates or turnstiles. This code, which the researchers nicknamed the magic bytes, will unlock Apple Pay. The team found they were then able to use this code to interfere with the signals going between the iPhone and a shop card reader.

By broadcasting the magic bytes and changing other fields in the protocol, they were able to fool the iPhone into thinking it was talking to a transit gate, whereas actually it was talking to a shop reader.

At the same time, the researchers’ method persuades the shop reader that the iPhone had successfully completed its user authorisation, so payments of any amount can be taken without the iPhone’s user’s knowledge.

Andreea Radu, in the School of Computer Science at the University of Birmingham, led the research. She said: “Our work shows a clear example of a feature, meant to incrementally make life easier, backfiring and negatively impacting security, with potentially serious financial consequences for users. Our discussions with Apple and Visa revealed that when two industry parties each have partial blame, neither are willing to accept responsibility and implement a fix, leaving users vulnerable indefinitely.”

Co-author Ioana Boureanu, from the University of Surrey’s Centre for Cyber Security, added: “We show how a usability feature in contactless mobile payments can lower security. But we also uncovered contactless mobile-payment designs, such as Samsung Pay, which is both usable and secure. ApplePay users should not have to trade-off security for usability, but at the moment some of them do.”

Co-author Tom Chothia, also in the School of Computer Science at the University of Birmingham, said: “IPhone owners should check if they have a Visa card set up for transit payments, and if so they should disable it. There is no need for Apple Pay users to be in danger but until Apple or Visa fix this they are.”

When asked to comments on the research, Apple provided the following statement: “We take any threat to users’ security very seriously. This is a concern with a Visa system but Visa does not believe this kind of fraud is likely to take place in the real world given the multiple layers of security in place. In the unlikely event that an unauthorised payment does occur, Visa has made it clear that their cardholders are protected by Visa’s zero liability policy.”

Visa was also asked to comment, but at the time of going to press had not responded.