When one company decided to take on data leaks to prove their new cell phone technology was the best, they discovered a great mystery. A series of over 17 fake cell phone towers that are capable of intercepting your cell phone signal have been discovered throughout the United States.
In the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations of the government spying on the US and even being able to turn on your cell phone remotely, companies have started a virtual “arms race” of trying to protect cell phone data from hacking and intrusion. One company was bound to prove their product was the best. ESD America built their new cell phone to look like the Samsung Galaxy and then added their software to remove over 468 vulnerabilities their programmers found in the cell phone technology.
What they discovered was even more alarming.
To show Popular Science just what their technology could do, the company director pointed to a map. He and the customers of the new technology have discovered over 17 fake cell phone towers, known as “interceptors”, found in the month of July, 2014, alone. (The map above is the one they provided the magazine for the month of August.)
Each of these “interceptors” look like ordinary cell phone towers, but they are far from innocent. Once your phone connects to one of these fake towers, they launch a series of attacks on your phone. They can launch anything from listening in on your conversations, to reading your text messages, and even pushing spy-ware programs onto your normally hard to hack cell phone so they can access it remotely in these “over the air” attacks.
“Interceptor use in the U.S. is much higher than people had anticipated,” Goldsmith says. “One of our customers took a road trip from Florida to North Carolina and he found 8 different interceptors on that trip. We even found one at South Point Casino in Las Vegas.” ~Popular Science
While the origin of these towers are a mystery, Goldsmith says he has a pretty good idea of who is trying to spy on some of the most populated areas of the United States.
“What we find suspicious is that a lot of these interceptors are right on top of U.S. military bases. So we begin to wonder – are some of them U.S. government interceptors? Or are some of them Chinese interceptors?” says Goldsmith. “Whose interceptor is it? Who are they, that’s listening to calls around military bases? Is it just the U.S. military, or are they foreign governments doing it? The point is: we don’t really know whose they are.” ~Popular Science
And the cost of setting up these mobile spying bases is not cheap. The technology is not easy to get and has been too challenging a target for your garden variety hacker. The equipment and base band processor needed come at a price tag that most can not afford. However, some have demonstrated that you can do the remote basic interceptor for a little less then $3,000, but they are not near as sophisticated as these. Could a foreign government really be attacking our communications, or is it our own?
“The baseband processor is one of the more difficult things to get into or even communicate with,” says Mathew Rowley, a senior security consultant at Matasano Security. “[That’s] because my computer doesn’t speak 4G or GSM, and also all those protocols are encrypted. You have to buy special hardware to get in the air and pull down the waves and try to figure out what they mean. It’s just pretty unrealistic for the general community.”
But for governments or other entities able to afford a price tag of “less than $100,000,” says Goldsmith, high-quality interceptors are quite realistic. Some interceptors are limited, only able to passively listen to either outgoing or incoming calls. But full-featured devices like the VME Dominator, available only to government agencies, can not only capture calls and texts, but even actively control the phone, sending out spoof texts, for example. Edward Snowden revealed that the N.S.A. is capable of an over-the-air attack that tells the phone to fake a shut-down while leaving the microphone running, turning the seemingly deactivated phone into a bug. And various ethical hackers have demonstrated DIY interceptor projects, using a software programmable radio and the open-source base station software package OpenBTS – this creates a basic interceptor for less than $3,000. On August 11, the F.C.C. announced an investigation into the use of interceptors against Americans by foreign intelligence services and criminal gangs. ~Popular Science
While the normal person probably shouldn’t worry about going out and spending $3500 for the new encrypted cell phone, what it found is alarming. While they won’t reveal who their customers are for security reasons, the company sells around 400 cell phones a week, mostly to fortune 500 companies. It does reveal an alarming trend on spying on American Citizens bigger then what was previously thought. Just who is building these things and why they want our information remains a mystery.
Should you worry?
One company that specializes in threat security says it depends.
“There’s this thing in our industry called “threat modeling,” says Day. “One of the things you learn is that you have to have a realistic sense of your adversary. Who is my enemy? What skills does he have? What are my goals in terms of security?”
If you’re not realistically of interest to the U.S. government and you never leave the country, then the CryptoPhone is probably more protection than you need. Goldsmith says he sells a lot of phones to executives who do business in Asia. The aggressive, sophisticated hacking teams working for the People’s Liberation Army have targeted American trade secrets, as well as political dissidents.
Day, who has written a paper about undermining censorship software used by the Chinese government, recommends people in hostile communications environments watch what they say over the phone and buy disposable “burner” phones that can be used briefly and then discarded.
“I’m not bringing anything into China that I’m not willing to throw away on my return trip,” says Day. ~Popular Science
However, according to Goldsmith and Snowden, the burner strategy can get you on a target list faster then your head can spin.
With the new revelation that sovereign citizens, Constitutionalists, militia, Tea-party, and Christians are thought to be more of a threat by the US government then someone wanting to start an Islamic Jihad, according to the FBI Lexicon, then perhaps all normal citizens should be worried why we are being spied upon still.