Chip and Skim: cloning EMV cards with the pre-play attack

Omar Choudary


EMV, also known as 'Chip and PIN', is the leading system for card payments worldwide. It is used throughout Europe and much of Asia, and is starting to be introduced in North America too. Payment cards contain a chip so they can execute an authentication protocol. This protocol requires point-of-sale (POS) terminals or ATMs to generate a nonce, called the unpredictable number, for each transaction to ensure it is fresh. We have discovered two serious problems with EMV: a widespread implementation flaw and a deeper, more difficult protocol flaw.

The first flaw is that some EMV implementers have merely used counters, timestamps or home-grown algorithms to supply this number. This exposes them to a 'pre-play' attack which is indistinguishable from card cloning from the standpoint of the logs available to the card-issuing bank, and can be carried out even if it is impossible to clone a card physically (in the sense of extracting the key material and loading it into another card). Card cloning is the very type of fraud that EMV was supposed to prevent. We describe how we detected the vulnerability, a survey methodology we developed to chart the scope of the weakness, evidence from ATM and terminal experiments in the field, and our implementation of proof-of-concept attacks. We found flaws in widely-used ATMs from the largest manufacturers. We can now explain at least some of the increasing number of frauds in which victims are refused refunds by banks which claim that EMV cards cannot be cloned and that a customer involved in a dispute must therefore be mistaken or complicit.

The second problem was exposed by the above work. It is a protocol failure and independent of the random number generator quality: pre-play attacks may also be carried out by malware in an ATM or POS terminal, or by a man-in-the-middle between the terminal and the acquirer. In this case the actual random number generated by the terminal is simply replaced by one known to the attacker. We explore the design and implementation mistakes that enabled these flaws to evade detection until now: shortcomings of the EMV specification, of the EMV kernel certification process, of implementation testing, formal analysis, and monitoring customer complaints. Finally we discuss countermeasures. More than a year after our initial responsible disclosure of these flaws to the banks, action has only been taken to mitigate the first of them, while the spread of ATM and POS malware is making the second ever more serious.

Time and Place

Wednesday, May 28, 4:15pm
Gates 463A