This is the first article in a new series: classic bugs. These are bugs that may not always be recent, but surely are interesting, or just still relevant. I think this first bug is both.
I am talking about a bug which could be read about on the Bugtraq mailing list in 1998. The poster, Max Schau started his e-mail with ‘this is an old exploit’, even then. With this bug, you can tell modems (the old analog 56k kind) to hang up. The problem is that with a modem, the data and the modem commands all go through the same communications channel. Sometimes, modems have hard time distinguishing between the two. So, if you can trick someone into sending a modem command, you can influence their modem.
The classic example is the hang up command (ATH0). If I can trick someone into sending that string (preceded by three plus signs) through their modem, a vulnerable modem will hang up. This is easier than it may sound, many systems respond to ICMP echo (ping) packets, and reply to the packet with the same data. So all I have to do is send a modem user an ICMP echo packet containing an AT command and it will reply to the packet, sending the command through the modem.
This denial of service used to be very popular and the beautiful thing is: it still works! At Fox-IT we still have an analog line we use for war dialing. Today, I hooked up a modem and dialed into one of the free dialup ISPs. Using a simple ping command from the original advisory, I was able trick the modem into hanging up! A couple of sources report some modems will hang up when merely visiting a site with an AT command in it, I was not able to reproduce that behavior with my modem.
I spend about half an hour trying to inject other commands (for example to trick the modem into dialing a given number), but was unsuccessful. With other modems this might work better. In the original advisory, someone mentions it may be possible to get modems to dial 911, which would be a big deal. In today’s world, criminals would most likely use it to get modems to dial their premium-rate telephone numbers.
Fortunately, not all analog modems are vulnerable to this attack. Some modems require a pause before sending commands, which makes this attack impossible (or at least very hard). A way of ‘patching’ your modem is in the original advisory, this involves changing the default escape character (+) in your modem using an ATS2 command. It seems the escape character can only be a single byte, so it would be easy to brute force if you know someone has changed it.