Transmission and Detection of Silent SMS in Android

Jan 17, 2022

SMS technology is used for exchanging text messages and for purposes that include SIM management and IoT communication. The technical specifications of SMS technology allow for short messages that do not appear as notifications on the receiving device. These messages, known as “silent SMS,” have the potential to be exploited for covert attacks. How can we determine whether we are under a silent SMS attack? In this article, I first review the specifications of SMS technology and then send and detect silent SMS messages on an Android device.


According to SMS specifications, a mobile device receiving a special short message with type 0 does not notify the user. For example, when I sent short message type 0 using AT commands, no visible notifications appeared on the Android device at the receiving end. However, the device logged a message indicating that it had received short message type 0. Therefore, Android users may be able to detect that they are under a silent SMS attack by monitoring message logs.

How SMS Works

Before discussing the details of silent SMS, let us review the technical specifications of SMS. The short messages sent from a mobile device are first stored in the SMSC (Short Message Service Center), which then delivers them to the destination device. The SMS specification 3GPP TS 23.040 (originally GSM 03.40)¹ defines the message type transferred from the sender’s device to the SMSC as “SMS-SUBMIT” and that to be transferred from the SMSC to the receiver’s device as “SMS-DELIVER.” Figure 1 illustrates the process of short message transfer.

Figure 1: Short message transfer.

The structure of the PDU (Protocol Data Unit) for short message transfer is also defined in 3GPP TS 23.040. This specification defines the PDUs for the six message types in the transfer layer. This article describes the PDU structures of SMS-SUBMIT and SMS-DELIVER (shown in Figure 2), which are related to silent SMS. TP-MTI (TP-Message-Type-Indicator) indicates the message type of the PDU, while TP-PID (TP-Protocol-Identifier) indicates the protocol to the upper layer. In the case of a normal text message, TP-DA (TP-Destination-Address) contains the destination phone number, TP-OA (TP-Originating-Address) contains the originating phone number, and TP-UD (TP-User-Data) contains the message text. Other elements are described in Sections and of the specification.

Figure 2: PDU structures of SMS-SUBMIT and SMS-DELIVER.

What is Silent SMS

A silent SMS is a special short message that is not displayed on the screen of a receiving mobile device and does not trigger an acoustic signal. In 3GPP TS 23.040, silent SMS messages are indicated as type 0 in TP-PID. Section of the specification assigns 01000000 as the bit pattern to indicate short message type 0 and defines the handling of the message as follows.

A short message type 0 indicates that the ME must acknowledge receipt of the short message but shall discard its contents. This means that

  • the MS shall be able to receive the type 0 short message irrespective of whether there is memory available in the (U)SIM or ME or not,
  • the MS shall not indicate the receipt of the type 0 short message to the user,
  • the short message shall neither be stored in the (U)SIM nor ME.

The MS (mobile station) in the quoted text is synonymous with the UE (user equipment). Therefore, the mobile device that receives this message will not be allowed to notify the user nor will it be allowed to save the message in the database.

SMS PDUs, where elements other than TP-PID have been manipulated, may also effectively become silent SMS. For example, Croft et al. (2007)² proposed sending silent SMS messages using SMPP, which manipulates data coding and WAP push messages. The SMPP is a protocol for transferring the SMS between external short message entities and the SMSC. Accordingly, the SMPP plays the role of SMS-SUBMIT when sending an SMS. Furthermore, the WAP data are included in the TP-UD of the SMS PDU and transferred. Thus, manipulating the TP-DCS (TP-Data-Coding-Scheme) or TP-UD of the SMS PDU may also result in a silent SMS. However, this study focuses on silent SMS with short message type 0, as defined in the specification.

As the recipient is not notified, silent SMS is often used for hidden purposes. Although the use case of short message type 0 is not described in the specification, Section 3.7.7 of Mobile Messaging Technologies and Services: SMS, EMS and MMS, 2nd Edition (Gwenaël, 2005)³ describes it as follows.

The common use case for using this message type is to page a mobile to check if the mobile is active without the user being aware that the mobile station has been paged.

The term “page” in the quoted text refers to the action of a base station requesting a nearby mobile phone to send identification information. It is not necessary for the user to view the short message required for this action. In contrast, as paging reveals the location of the receiving device, German law enforcement agencies use silent SMS to determine the whereabouts of suspects. Furthermore, the aforementioned study by Croft et al. suggests that the damage stemming from silent SMS includes DoS attacks as well as economic injury when being charged for receiving SMS. Silent SMS has the potential to be exploited in covert attacks. The problem lies in how these attacks can be detected.

Transmission of Silent SMS

An SMS PDU must be sent as a sample to test the detection of silent SMS. Unfortunately, there is no API in the Android application framework for sending SMS PDUs directly. The package android.telephony includes several methods for sending SMS, such as SmsManager.sendTextMessage() and SmsManager.sendDataMessage(). However, these methods can only manipulate TP-DA as the destination and TP-UD as the content. In previous versions of Android, SmsManager.sendRawPdu() could be invoked via reflection to send SMS PDUs. In Android 12, this method is hidden in the internal SMSDispatcher.sendRawPdu(), and it no longer accepts SMS PDU as an argument. To circumvent this restriction, I used an Android device as a USB modem to send SMS PDUs.

SMS PDUs can be sent using AT commands by utilizing an Android device as a USB modem. Whether the Android device exposes the USB modem interface depends on the model. Tian et al. (2018) showed that non-rooted Android devices manufactured by Samsung and LG exposed a USB modem interface. This study provides an example of connecting a non-rooted Samsung Galaxy S10 (Android 11) to a MacBook via USB in MTP mode and then executing AT commands on the exposed USB modem interface /dev/tty.usbmodemRF8M6███████. AT commands are used to control modems, and extended commands for controlling SMS have been standardized in 3GPP TS 27.005. To use AT commands on the Galaxy S10, enabling Developer options > 3GPP AT commands is necessary, as shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3: Enabling 3GPP AT commands.

To compare the reception of a normal text message with that of a silent SMS, I sent two types of SMS PDUs, as shown in Figure 4. In this figure, the PDU of a normal text message is shown at the top and that of short message type 0 is shown at the bottom. At the beginning of both PDUs, 00 is added as the SCA (Service Center Address) to indicate the default SMSC, and 01 is set in the TP-MTI to indicate SMS-SUBMIT. The TP-PID is set to 00 for a normal text message, and 40 (bit pattern: 01000000) for short message type 0. The phone number +819001234567 set as the TP-DA in the figure is a dummy. The TP-UD is set to hello encoded in GSM 7-bit characters, as defined by 3GPP TS 23.038 (originally GSM 03.38).

Figure 4: SMS PDUs of a normal text message and short message type 0.

After sending the SMS PDUs, I observed the behavior of the mobile phone that received a PDU of short message type 0. Figure 5 illustrates what happens when SMS PDUs are sent and received. The SMS PDUs were sent from Galaxy S10, connected through the terminal on the left, to the non-rooted Google Pixel 4a (Android 12) on the right. First, I connected to the USB modem interface through the screen command and executed AT to confirm that AT commands were available. Next, I executed AT+CMGF=0 to switch the input and output formats to the PDU mode. Thereafter, I executed AT+CMGS=18 to send the SMS PDUs. The value 18 is the number of octets of the SMS PDU to be sent, excluding SCA. In the case of a normal text message, after the SMS PDU is submitted, OK was returned to indicate a successful transmission, and Pixel 4a displayed a notification. In the case of short message type 0, the transmission was successful; however, Pixel 4a did not display a notification. This behavior corresponds to the specifications of a silent SMS.

Figure 5: Sending and receiving SMS PDUs.

Detection of Silent SMS

Upon receiving short message type 0, Android logs the messages. In the project “AIMSICD” for detecting IMSI catchers, the detection of silent SMS was also discussed, and a method to detect short message type 0 from the Android log output was adopted. This study reviews Android’s log output process with reference to the aforementioned discussion. If the received SMS-DELIVER is a special short message, Android delegates its handling to the internal GsmInboundSmsHandler.disappatchMessageRadioSpecific(). Part of the source code of this method is shown in Figure 6. According to the first comment, some carriers will send visual voicemail as short message type 0; therefore, Android 12 first delegates the received SMS PDU to the visual voicemail process. Thereafter, it outputs a message as a debug-level log, indicating that short message type 0 was received.

protected int dispatchMessageRadioSpecific(SmsMessageBase smsb, @SmsSource int smsSource) {
    SmsMessage sms = (SmsMessage) smsb;

    if (sms.isTypeZero()) {
        // Some carriers will send visual voicemail SMS as type zero.
        int destPort = -1;
        SmsHeader smsHeader = sms.getUserDataHeader();
        if (smsHeader != null && smsHeader.portAddrs != null) {
            // The message was sent to a port.
            destPort = smsHeader.portAddrs.destPort;
                .filter(mContext, new byte[][]{sms.getPdu()}, SmsConstants.FORMAT_3GPP,
                        destPort, mPhone.getSubId());
        // As per 3GPP TS 23.040, Type Zero messages should not be
        // Displayed/Stored/Notified. They should only be acknowledged.
        log("Received short message type 0, Don't display or store it. Send Ack");
        return Intents.RESULT_SMS_HANDLED;

Figure 6: Part of the source code of dispatchMessageRadioSpecific().

While displaying the Android log, I observe the output log message when short message type 0 is received, as shown in Figure 7. The top of the terminal connects to Galaxy S10 (the sender) and the bottom connects to Pixel 4a (the receiver). When displaying Pixel 4a logs, I set the logcat command with the option -b radio, to request logs related to radio and telephony. Moreover, two filters GsmInboundSmsHandler:D *:S were set to display only the target logs. After sending short message type 0 from Galaxy S10, although Pixel 4a did not display a receipt notification, it outputted a log message indicating that it had received short message type 0. This is highlighted in red text in Figure 7. Therefore, it is known that short message type 0 is received.

Figure 7: Outputting a log message.

Conclusion and Future Work

Android is designed to output a log message when short message type 0 is received. By monitoring this log, attacks that exploit silent SMS messages may be detected. However, silent SMS can plausibly be achieved using methods other than short message type 0. Therefore, further research is required to investigate whether these methods can be proven and detected. Furthermore, as this study focused solely on Android, future work should investigate the detection of silent SMS in iOS. If a silent SMS attack is detected, but the carrier does not provide any countermeasure, a possible temporary measure is to set the mobile device to airplane mode or remove the SIM card. However, this measure disables telephony as well as SMS. Therefore, future studies are required to determine a method for mobile devices to reject only silent SMS messages.

¹ 3GPP TS 23.040, Technical realization of the Short Message Service (SMS)
² Croft, Neil J., and Martin S. Olivier. "A Silent SMS Denial of Service (DoS) Attack"
³ Mobile Messaging Technologies and Services: SMS, EMS and MMS, 2nd Edition - Wiley
Zoll, BKA und Verfassungsschutz verschickten 2010 über 440.000 "stille SMS" - heise online
Tian, Dave Jing, et al. "ATtention Spanned: Comprehensive Vulnerability Analysis of AT Commands Within the Android Ecosystem"
3GPP TS 27.005, Use of Data Terminal Equipment - Data Circuit terminating Equipment (DTE - DCE) interface for Short Message Service (SMS) and Cell Broadcast Service (CBS)
3GPP TS 23.038, Alphabets and language-specific information
Detection of Silent (Stealth) SMS Type 0 [$115 awarded] · Issue #69 · CellularPrivacy/Android-IMSI-Catcher-Detector - GitHub