Saudi Arabia’s government announced it reached a deal with Research In Motion (RIMM) that will allow the Canadian maker of BlackBerry smartphones to continue operating its service there. Under the agreement, RIM will put a server in the nation that will allow the government to monitor messages to and from Blackberries. All of RIM’s servers have been in Canada until now so the company could guarantee confidentiality for its customers though the encryption process on those servers.
According to several news sources, similar deals will probably be sought by other countries that have voiced concerns about the Blackberry encryption procedures. First among these is the United Arab Emirates, which threatened to shut down RIM’s services there on Oct. 11. India and Indonesia have also said they’re concerned about the RIM confidentiality system and their inability to track information that they claim may not be in the best interests of their governments.
LAS VEGAS — A security researcher created a cell phone base station that tricks cell phones into routing their outbound calls through his device, allowing someone to intercept even encrypted calls in the clear.
The device tricks the phones into disabling encryption and records call details and content before they’re routed on their proper way through voice-over-IP.
The low-cost, home-brewed device, developed by researcher Chris Paget, mimics more expensive devices already used by intelligence and law enforcement agencies – called IMSI catchers – that can capture phone ID data and content. The devices essentially spoof a legitimate GSM tower and entice cell phones to send them data by emitting a signal that’s stronger than legitimate towers in the area.
“If you have the ability to deliver a reasonably strong signal, then those around are owned,” Paget said.
Paget’s system costs only about $1,500, as opposed to several hundreds of thousands for professional products. Most of the price is for the laptop he used to operate the system.
Doing this kind of interception “used to be a million dollars, now you can do it with a thousand times less cost,” Paget said during a press conference after his attack. “If it’s $1,500, it’s just beyond the range that people can start buying them for themselves and listening in on their neighbors.”
Paget’s device captures only 2G GSM calls, making AT&T and T-Mobile calls, which use GSM, vulnerable to interception. Paget’s aim was to highlight vulnerabilities in the GSM standard that allows a rogue station to capture calls. GSM is a second-generation technology that is not as secure as 3G technology.
Encrypted calls are not protected from interception because the rogue tower can simply turn it off. Although the GSM specifications say that a phone should pop up a warning when it connects to a station that does not have encryption, SIM cards disable that setting so that alerts are not displayed.
“Even though the GSM spec requires it, this is a deliberate choice on the cell phone makers,” Paget said.
The system captures only outbound calls. Inbound calls would go directly to voicemail during the period that someone’s phone is connected to Paget’s tower.
The device could be used by corporate spies, criminals, or private investigators to intercept private calls of targets.
“Any information that goes across a cell phone you can now intercept,” he said, except data. Professional grade IMSI catchers do capture data transfers, but Paget’s system doesn’t currently do this.
His setup included two RF directional antennas about three feet long to amplify his signal in the large conference room, a laptop and open source software. The system emitted only 25 milliwatts, “a hundred times less than your average cell phone,” he said.
Paget received a call from FCC officials on Friday who raised a list of possible regulations his demonstration might violate. To get around legal concerns, he broadcast on a GSM spectrum for HAM radios, 900Mhz, which is the same frequency used by GSM phones and towers in Europe, thus avoiding possible violations of U.S. regulations.
Just turning on the antennas caused two dozen phones in the room to connect to Paget’s tower. He then set it to spoof an AT&T tower to capture calls from customers of that carrier.
“As far as your cell phones are concerned, I am now indistinguishable from AT&T,” he said. “Every AT&T cell phone in the room will gradually start handing over to my network.”
During the demonstration, only about 30 phones were actually connecting to his tower. Paget says it can take time for phones to find the signal and hand off to the tower, but there are methods for speeding up that process.
To address privacy concerns, he set up the system to deliver a recorded message to anyone who tried to make a call from the room while connected to his tower. The message disclosed that their calls were being recorded. All of the data Paget recorded was saved to a USB stick, which he destroyed after the talk.
Customers of carriers that use GSM could try to protect their calls from being intercepted in this manner by switching their phones to 3G mode if it’s an option.
But Paget said he could also capture phones using 3G by sending out jamming noise to block 3G. Phones would then switch to 2G and hook up with his rogue tower. Paget had his jammer and an amplifier on stage but declined to turn them on saying they would “probably knock out all Las Vegas cell phone systems.”
Photo: Dave Bullock
Easy interception. Cell phone communications are sent through the air like communications from a walkie-talkie, and encryption is usually inadequate or absent. Although there are substantial legal protections for the privacy of cell phone calls, it’s technologically straightforward to intercept cell phone calls on many cell networks without the cooperation of the carrier, and the technology to do this is only getting cheaper. Such interception without legal process could be a serious violation of privacy laws, but would be immensely difficult to detect. U.S. and foreign intelligence agencies have the technical capacity to intercept unencrypted and weakly encrypted cell phone calls on a routine basis.
With traditional identity theft channels now closing, fraudsters are increasingly targeting unprotected voice conversations to obtain confidential insider information, passwords and PIN codes without detection. Voice correspondence is almost always uncharted territory for business security armour under the false assumption that phone hacking is a highly sophisticated and expensive means of attack.
The days of phone fraud involving thousands of pounds of equipment and an extensive army of technology experts are long gone. Only in December it was revealed that a computer engineer had broken the algorithm used to encrypt the majority of the world’s digital mobile phone calls online, and published his method…
Wiretapping is a widespread practice in Italy. Just this week it emerged that both Pope Benedict XVI and Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, had been inadvertently taped by Italian investigators.
They were recorded during telephone conversations with the head of Italy’s civil protection agency, Guido Bertolaso, who was being wire-tapped as part of an investigation into allegations of corruption over the awarding of contracts for the building of a venue for last year’s G8 conference.
The prime minister has insisted that police have been allowed to carry out far too many wiretaps. He has claimed that the leaking of transcripts to the media could destroy the reputation of public figures before a case had even come to trial.
In a special report on Tuesday Colombian news source CM& claimed to have access to documents proving that information collected through the surveillance and wiretapping of judges, journalists and politicians conducted by security agency DAS was passed on to members of the government.
The documents were obtained by the Prosecutor General’s Office and used to justify the arrest of five former DAS officials last Friday.
Among the documents is allegedly a file labeled “President Uribe,” which was used by the DAS officials to collate “documents of interest to the Colombian president.”
A second document allegedly shows evidence of the surveillance of journalist Holman Morris by the security agency, including an apparently illegally-obtained email written by Morris.
The final piece of evidence mentioned in CM&’s report documents the opinions and intentions of Supreme Court magistrates concerning the re-election referendum of President Alvaro Uribe.
The report is allegedly also labeled with the word “President” and documents which of the court’s magistrates were against the approval of a referendum that would allow for the potential re-election of Uribe to his third term as president.
In reference to the new evidence, the president of Colombia’s Supreme Court, Jaime Arrubla, said on Mondaythat “everything seemed to indicate” that the government had been directly involved in the wire-tapping of court magistrates, which he found “horrifying.”
Arrubla accused the Colombian government of a “conspiracy of the state against the court, a criminal action” and requested a full investigation of the aides of President Uribe who have been implicated in the scandal.
Speaking to national media, Gustavo Petro, the presidential candidate for political party Polo Democratico, also recommended that an investigation be opened into allegations against President Uribe.
“There is no doubt that the political responsibility lies with President Uribe,” said Petro, adding that the inspector general must conduct investigations, “proceeding according to his duty and showing his independence.”
A statement released by the Colombian government on Monday, however, denied all allegations of involvement in the wiretapping scandal, saying, “Following stories in the press related to the investigation carried out by the Prosecutor General’s Office about alleged illegal wiretaps, the Presidency of the Republic wishes to state that not one employee of the Casa de Nariño has met with officials to instruct or order the interception (of communication) or shadowing of magistrates, politicians or any person. All officials are willing to appear before the judicial bodies to ratify that the Casa de Nariño never has given instructions in this sense.”
New evidence collected will primarily be used to investigate charges against the scandal-ridden DAS for illegal wire-tapping and surveillance activities.