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Android phones susceptible to freezing cold boot attacks

A new FROST method can help would-be thieves access data on password protected and encrypted Android phones.

The FROST method requires freezing an Android phone for roughly 1 hour. Friedrich-Alexander University

The next time you're looking for your misplaced Android smartphone, check the freezer. It's possible, however unlikely, that someone is trying to hack into your data using a new FROST attack method.

Researchers at Friedrich-Alexander University in Germany have learned that it is possible to access personal information on Android 4.0 smartphones using a chilling technique.

Called FROST, or forensic recovery of scrambled telephones, it amounts to placing the phone in temperatures of -15 Celsius for roughly 1 hour. After removing from a freezer, you must repeatedly power on and off the phone and hold down the volume up and down. In the case of the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, the university simply disconnected and reconnected the battery in very short (less than 500ms) bursts.

The team was able to successfully break into the phones and access contact lists, visited web sites, and photos using cold boot attacks. Even handsets that are encrypted are found to be vulnerable to the method; however, the bootloader must be first unlocked. Ironically, it was Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich that introduced disk encryption to the platform.

How does the extreme cold temperature make it possible to access the data? Data stored in the RAM will hang around for longer periods of time if the temperature is much colder.

As is the case with other security workarounds and breaches, the method requires much skill. In this instance, you'll also need extremely cold temperatures, patience, and a bit of luck.