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Cellphones Communications United States

Mysterious, Phony Cell Towers Found Throughout US 237

Posted by Soulskill
from the can-you-hear-me-now dept.
Trachman writes: Popular Science magazine recently published an article about a network of cell towers owned not by telecommunication companies but by unknown third parties. Many of them are built around U.S. military bases. "Interceptors vary widely in expense and sophistication – but in a nutshell, they are radio-equipped computers with software that can use arcane cellular network protocols and defeat the onboard encryption. ... 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."
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Mysterious, Phony Cell Towers Found Throughout US

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  • by 50000BTU_barbecue (588132) on Tuesday September 02, 2014 @10:07PM (#47813381) Homepage Journal

    We could listen to AMPS cell phone calls by tuning to the high UHF channels and tuning between channels... Ahhh anyone remember the joy of pressing the outer tuning ring and going back and forth???

    • by fahrbot-bot (874524) on Tuesday September 02, 2014 @10:35PM (#47813555)

      Ahhh anyone remember the joy of pressing the outer tuning ring and going back and forth???

      Worst pick-up line ever.

      • by TWX (665546) on Wednesday September 03, 2014 @10:05AM (#47816225)

        Ahhh anyone remember the joy of pressing the outer tuning ring and going back and forth???

        Worst pick-up line ever.

        Any pickup line that works is an effective pickup line.

        Though in hindsight, using, "Gimme a waitress, hold the dressing," successfully at the IHOP should have set off some warning bells...

        • by ulatekh (775985)

          Though in hindsight, using, "Gimme a waitress, hold the dressing," successfully at the IHOP should have set off some warning bells...

          Or my personal favorite..."Can I have a side of you with nothing on it?"

    • by Frobnicator (565869) on Tuesday September 02, 2014 @10:49PM (#47813629) Journal

      Picking up phone calls over TV tuners is one thing. Buying and installing a product with a name like "VME Dominator".

      One of those can happen by innocent mistake. The other sounds ... well, not so innocent.

    • I still have my JRC NRD-525. Man that thing would pick up anything. Cell phones, baby intercoms, cordless phones, military radio, etc etc.

      Too bad so much is encrypted now.

    • by SumDog (466607)

      My buddy in high school had a police scanner and as we were driving around we could ocasionally pick up cellphone calls, but only one half of them. It really sucked when we got the boring half.

      "Yep...uh huh...yea...What time?...I'm free tomorrow...yea....uhuh....what?...gotcha..."

    • If these towers are not registered with the FCC, then what would happen if one possibly fell over?
      • by GNious (953874)

        If they are owned by the Military? lots of "interesting" things could happen.

      • by k6mfw (1182893)

        If these towers are not registered with the FCC, then what would happen if one possibly fell over?

        Nothing. Like a tree falling in a forest with nobody around to hear it. Besides being factious that FCC no longer does enforcement but probably get attention from OSHA or local planning dept that issues permits.

    • by Orp (6583)

      I never did that but a long time ago (80s) I did listen to some fascinating conversations broadcast in the clear around 1.7 MHz - just past the AM band - off of a cordless phone somewhere near my neighborhood. I had an old Hallicrafters shortwave radio that weighed nearly as much as I did (even more with the big external speaker). I don't remember the details of the conversations, only that it was mostly stupid stuff as would be expected.

    • by emaname (1014225)

      Ahhh anyone remember the joy of pressing the outer tuning ring and going back and forth???

      Yup. I do. I'm sorry to say.

  • by m00sh (2538182) on Tuesday September 02, 2014 @10:12PM (#47813413)

    The article says ...

    What we find suspicious is that a lot of these interceptors are right on top of U.S. military bases.

    The summary says ...

    Many of them are built around U.S. military bases.

    Way to slant the summary to make it look like Chinese towers rather than our towers.

    • by msauve (701917)
      I'd give the US military more credit than that. They wouldn't place their own interceptors directly on their bases, but nearby. Else, how would you have plausible deniability?
      • by ShanghaiBill (739463) on Tuesday September 02, 2014 @11:26PM (#47813815)

        I'd give the US military more credit than that. They wouldn't place their own interceptors directly on their bases, but nearby. Else, how would you have plausible deniability?

        It is likely that the military doesn't need deniability. Many FCC rules don't apply to the military. It is quite likely that they they can legal operate their own cell towers. Similar exceptions are made for prisons, which can operate their own cell towers [latimes.com] to keep inmates from making calls from smuggled cell phones.

        • by k6mfw (1182893) on Wednesday September 03, 2014 @03:06AM (#47814547)

          It is likely that the military doesn't need deniability. Many FCC rules don't apply to the military.

          military, like other federal agencies are "licensed" and freq coordinated by the NTIA and there databases are not publicly available like FCC general menu reports. http://fjallfoss.fcc.gov/Gener... [fcc.gov]

        • by msauve (701917)
          "Similar exceptions are made for prisons, "

          Try harder. Governmental bodies also need licenses, and that article doesn't in any way claim otherwise. In fact, it refers to jammers being illegal. What's happening is that the prison contractor is working with the local cell companies, who have the licenses.
        • by Rich0 (548339)

          Well, they are FCC regulated within the US, but you're basically talking about the government regulating itself. Mostly the FCC's concern is going to be interference - not even the Air Force wants to spend a billion dollars on some fancy radar system only to find out that the Navy spent a billion dollars building a fancy communications system that uses the same frequencies/etc. Obviously spread spectrum mitigates many of these issues, but not entirely so.

          I can't imagine the FCC is going to tell DHS that t

    • by SpzToid (869795)

      This is a good article, as before I had no idea such sophisticated rogue towers were such a threat all over the US.

      So when Goldsmith and his team drove by the government facility in July, he also took a standard Samsung Galaxy S4 and an iPhone to serve as a control group for his own device.

      ”As we drove by, the iPhone showed no difference whatsoever. The Samsung Galaxy S4, the call went from 4G to 3G and back to 4G. The CryptoPhone lit up like a Christmas tree.”

      Though the standard Apple and And

      • by ShanghaiBill (739463) on Tuesday September 02, 2014 @11:33PM (#47813851)

        This is a good article, as before I had no idea such sophisticated rogue towers were such a threat all over the US.

        It is common. Where I live, in San Jose, California, our police department was caught illegally monitoring phone calls by operating a Stingray [wikipedia.org], which mimics a cell phone tower. Of course no one was punished or disciplined, and certainly no one lost their badge, because, hey, they are cops, and boys will be boys.

        • by Rich0 (548339)

          Of course no one was punished or disciplined, and certainly no one lost their badge, because, hey, they are cops, and boys will be boys.

          Why, that is an outrageous accusation. I'm sure somebody was given an extra paid vacation, err, put on temporary suspension, when this hit the press.

    • by wvmarle (1070040) on Tuesday September 02, 2014 @11:17PM (#47813775)

      If they indeed are Chinese (or otherwise foreign) spy towers, and so easily detected (the authors of the article didn't seem to have a hard time finding such towers), there's something terribly, terribly wrong with your homeland security.

      • by sowth (748135) on Wednesday September 03, 2014 @12:22AM (#47814081) Journal

        If they...so easily detected...there's something terribly, terribly wrong with your homeland security.

        And this is news....how? This is the same government which brought the TSA, and they are certainly useless.

      • by Imrik (148191)

        Not necessarily, they could have been allowed to make it easy to feed them false information.

      • by AmiMoJo (196126) * <mojo@@@world3...net> on Wednesday September 03, 2014 @04:05AM (#47814729) Homepage

        They are US towers designed to track people who visit military sites. If some potential terrorist visits a few different military sites to do reconnaissance with their phone they can be flagged up in a database somewhere. As a bonus whoever owns those towers gets to monitor all the calls, texts and data going through them. They probably like to keep an eye on military personnel too, in case any of them are traitors.

      • by Ol Olsoc (1175323)

        If they indeed are Chinese (or otherwise foreign) spy towers, and so easily detected (the authors of the article didn't seem to have a hard time finding such towers), there's something terribly, terribly wrong with your homeland security.

        It's just the "Ancient Aliens" neurosis. It's like Chemtrails, or even.........teh evile raynboze! https://www.youtube.com/watch?... [youtube.com]

        Too many stupid people have access to technology. Too many people think that because a tower has a conical cross section that it is a cell phone tower.

        But hey, just because they looked up in the sky and saw a condensation trail, or a rainbow, or a tower, doesn't mean that contrails or rainbows or towers around military bases haven't existed for a long long long time.

        It o

      • by jeffmeden (135043)

        (the authors of the article, who make about $3500 a pop selling reflashed phones to paranoid rich guys who do business in Asia, didn't seem to have a hard time finding such towers and making the hasty connection to China),

        FTFY. And yes, these are US DoD towers used to prevent leaks of classified info and do other counterespionage monitoring.

      • by Rich0 (548339)

        If they indeed are Chinese (or otherwise foreign) spy towers, and so easily detected (the authors of the article didn't seem to have a hard time finding such towers), there's something terribly, terribly wrong with your homeland security.

        The problem is that when any little police department is allowed to deploy this sort of thing and it ends up being ubiquitous, how do you even detect when somebody is using one to spy on you.

        I mean, if the Chinese (or whoever your favorite boogeyman is) drove a tank up I-95 towards Washington DC, you can bet that somebody would notice and put a stop to it before it could do anything serious. On the other hand, if every police department routinely patrolled the highways with tanks just in case they ran into

    • The article says ...

      What we find suspicious is that a lot of these interceptors are right on top of U.S. military bases.

      The summary says ...

      Many of them are built around U.S. military bases.

      Way to slant the summary to make it look like Chinese towers rather than our towers.

      I do not think those statements mean different things. They could, but from what I know of cell towers all they could really know is that the tower is near the base, not if it was right on it or not. It's not like they were triangulating the signal or anything.

    • by Culture20 (968837) on Tuesday September 02, 2014 @11:37PM (#47813869)
      "right on top of" is an American English colloquialism meaning "really close by", usually in terms of a pursuit, but sometimes with stationary objects.
      • "right on top of" is an American English colloquialism meaning "really close by", usually in terms of a pursuit, but sometimes with stationary objects.

        Yep but it could also mean, you know, like "actually on top of".

    • by jeffmeden (135043)

      The article says ...

      What we find suspicious is that a lot of these interceptors are right on top of U.S. military bases.

      The summary says ...

      Many of them are built around U.S. military bases.

      Way to slant the summary to make it look like Chinese towers rather than our towers.

      Considering that data exfiltration via 4G networks can be fast and run from nearly anywhere, it's not surprising at all that military installations (probably ones with secrets to keep) use these towers as a way to know exactly what's going in/out of their territory. It sure beats something as on-the-nose as simply using RF interference to block all calls/texts/data. They can catch would-be espionage spies in the act and probably even ID who sent them.

  • Sponsored post (Score:5, Interesting)

    by ourlovecanlastforeve (795111) on Tuesday September 02, 2014 @10:20PM (#47813473)

    It's a thinly veiled ad for a supposedly "secure" cell phone.

    • by AmiMoJo (196126) *

      It seems like someone could create an app that detects these towers for any Android phone. There are public databases of known towers, or ones could easily be created. Then the phone simply downloads the database and periodically checks if the tower it is connected to is in there. If it isn't you know it is either very new or a fake one.

    • by drolli (522659)

      Yes i would have hoped that the most plausible theories (IMHO) for the cell towers would have been examined closer, but then it turned into a diffuse "china is so bad" speech.

      IMHO there are several reasons why such towers could be close to military bases:

      a) Some enemy to the US tries to spy on the solidiers phones (trying to uncover their identities etc) - unlikely

      b) These cell towers serve to protect the identity of all (or some) phones (by filtering the network protocols, hiding location information) on t

  • by jpellino (202698) on Tuesday September 02, 2014 @10:21PM (#47813481)
    intercept non-approved communications about kjhfgdt kans hwwpfu alowk nh ar akhde.
  • by eclectro (227083) on Tuesday September 02, 2014 @10:35PM (#47813557)

    The fact that these towers are found next to military bases speaks volumes.

    The military needs to there own version of everything to make sure things work in times of national crisis, emergency, or security. They need to have their own infrastructure to insure communications. They need to control their communications around bases and know who is saying or doing what. They need to be able to anticipate attacks. Nobody should have any expectation of privacy on or next to a military base.

    Quite frankly, I'm glad to see this.

    • by flayzernax (1060680) on Tuesday September 02, 2014 @10:51PM (#47813633)

      Uh, yeah, but the military can damn well make sure their hardware only interfaces with other military hardware, not your cell phone, and not prioritize your civilian traffic over their 'emergency, auxilary, or military channels'.

      This is just more and more slippery goose shit for the sauce.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Nobody should have any expectation of privacy on or next to a military base.

      The civilians living next to the military base expect the military to defend their freedom to expect privacy. Otherwise the military is not doing the job that the civilians are paying for. That is how civilized society functions, the military answers to civilian authority.

      You are welcome to relocate to a military dictatorship if you want. There are plenty to choose from. Do not bother coming back.

    • by Charliemopps (1157495) on Tuesday September 02, 2014 @11:27PM (#47813821)

      The fact that these towers are found next to military bases speaks volumes.

      The military needs to there own version of everything to make sure things work in times of national crisis, emergency, or security. They need to have their own infrastructure to insure communications. They need to control their communications around bases and know who is saying or doing what. They need to be able to anticipate attacks. Nobody should have any expectation of privacy on or next to a military base.

      Quite frankly, I'm glad to see this.

      Last time I checked, my constitutional rights didn't get suspended inside a casino in Las Vegas... did you miss that part? Many were on bases, but not all or even most. If the military wants to control their own communications they are welcome to start their own cellular network, they could even use these towers and then have their staff roam to other networks when they weren't near a base.

      The only reason they are doing this is to intercept the calls of us citizens which is both illegal and unconstitutional. Your imaginary safety is not worth my constitutional rights. This sort of surveillance is exactly what the constitution was created to protect us from. It's not some weird esoteric thing the founders could never have anticipated like Machine guns or Abortions. This is the government listening in to the private correspondence of citizens for the sole purpose of security. That's expressly and unarguably forbidden legally, constitutionally and every other way you can think of.

      • Maybe there are different things going on, like maybe the military bases have their own separately-powered communications that are sort of legitimate, and the interception near the casino is more on the shady side (with a supposedly good reason like "make sure nobody is using cellphones or video to cheat the casino").

        I think you're overreacting to the threat from the government. I'm not worried about military surveillance around military bases, because I don't have to go driving near military bases (and
        • Whether you have to drive around a military base depends upon where you are. Here there are several large military installations in and around a densely populated metro area. One of the main roads goes by not one but two of them. There simply isn’t a realistic way to avoid them here. I’d have to drive 50 miles or more out of my way every day to avoid them. Even then half the metro area would be off limits to me. So whatever they are doing I am pretty much going to have to accept it because I a

      • There is no U.S. constitutional right to privacy. This is particularly true where your communications are broadcast in the clear for the world to receive. (You do know that's what your cell phone does, right?)

        In the U.S. your right to privacy, to the extent you have one, is granted by statute. Your constitutional right to be secure in your person keeps the government from reaching into your pocket, not from listening to your public ramblings.

        If a policeman wants to stand on the corner listening to publi

        • There is no U.S. constitutional right to privacy.

          The government can only do what the constitution says it can. The constitution is not a list of rights that citizens have, but a list of powers that the government has. Therefore, there is a constitutional right to privacy unless explicitly stated otherwise.

          This is particularly true where your communications are broadcast in the clear for the world to receive.

          Oh, fuck off. I damn well expect the government to not listen to my communications. And say, "Well, it would be pretty easy to listen to your conversation!" doesn't mean that it's moral to do so. My conversation is between me and the person I'm talking t

          • The government can only do what the constitution says it can. The constitution is not a list of rights that citizens have, but a list of powers that the government has. Therefore, there is a constitutional right to privacy unless explicitly stated otherwise.

            And by the same logic the government can't stop you from driving your car on the public roads or from selling narcotics on the corner.

            This is particularly true where your communications are broadcast in the clear for the world to receive.

            Oh, fuck off. I damn well expect the government to not listen to my communications. And say, "Well, it would be pretty easy to listen to your conversation!" doesn't mean that it's moral to do so. My conversation is between me and the person I'm talking to. It's not public just because it's transmitted in the clear, and people like you with a such a privacy-hostile mentality are the cause of things such as the TSA, the NSA's mass surveillance, and warrantless wiretapping in general.

            I will choose to "fuck off" behind closed doors. You apparently want to fuck off in the street and expect everyone else to turn away or go to jail. If you want to post your conversations in public places, then you can't reasonably expect them to be private, even under the color of your warped sense of morality. (Let me help you to notice the obvious: there is no wire to wiret

        • These are not "public" conversations and this is not the police.

          The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

          This is the military opening our mail, literally. That's unconstitutional and illegal. Period.

    • by wvmarle (1070040)

      If so, why would those towers be only at their bases? If using regular mobile phone frequencies (or frequencies close to those), they won't be able to create a complete network out of them, simply because the reach of those towers is limited to some 50 km, or the nearest mountain or tall building. Get off the base, and lose your communication - doesn't sound like a very useful system in case of emergency or war.

    • The fact that these towers are found next to military bases speaks volumes.

      The military needs to there own version of everything to make sure things work in times of national crisis, emergency, or security. They need to have their own infrastructure to insure communications. They need to control their communications around bases and know who is saying or doing what. They need to be able to anticipate attacks. Nobody should have any expectation of privacy on or next to a military base.

      Quite frankly, I'm glad to see this.

      RTFA and it says the towers were found ON not NEAR the bases.

      I also have enough confidence in the military that they have entire books of regulations covering things like radio towers being anywhere near a base.

    • by Rich0 (548339)

      The military needs to there own version of everything to make sure things work in times of national crisis, emergency, or security.

      The military has their own radios for just that reason. They aren't going to depend on cell phones in a national security crisis. They certainly aren't going to try to harden a consumer cell phone and use it as a substitute for whatever the tanks on the battlefield use to communicate.

      This came up in Iraq (I think that was Iraq v2, but maybe it happened in v1). The guys in the field had big clunky milspec GPS receivers, and many found consumer GPS units to be more featured and easier to use. The problem

  • The article doesn't say they are towers. It says that, to phones, they look like towers. Presumably, to people, they don't look like towers.

    Interceptors look to a typical phone like an ordinary tower. Once the phone connects with the interceptor, a variety of “over-the-air” attacks become possible, from eavesdropping on calls and texts to pushing spyware to the device.... Interceptors vary widely in expense and sophistication – but in a nutshell, they are radio-equipped computers with software that can use arcane cellular network protocols and defeat the onboard encryption.

    • Except that the reason they place cell infrastructure on top of towers is not arbitrary. It is not like they can hide these "cell towers" 50 feet underground. Sure they could paint them blue, but they have to be high, and there are not really too many other ways of building something that is really high.
    • Small cell hardware can be offered some concealment as signs, trees, big cactus, wider flag poles, bell towers, thin onto brick walls or fake wood sidings, water towers, added rooftop enclosures, fake tinted glass, in a new chimney box, fake dormers, cupola.
      It just depends on who is paying and what fits in with the surrounding area.
  • by Black Parrot (19622) on Tuesday September 02, 2014 @11:14PM (#47813763)

    Is this article some kind of joke I don't quite get?

    • Cell towers are usually owned or shared by telco firms, brands, providers that try to encrypt their users and are kind of easy to spot with hardware.
      The "Phony" cell towers do not respond or act in the same way. They are fake but still fool a users phone into making a network connection.
      Tame consumer grade hardware is fooled into seeing just another cell tower.
  • by AbRASiON (589899) * on Tuesday September 02, 2014 @11:17PM (#47813771) Journal

    Can I just say,

    From the mouths of ANYONE who isn't an American.
    STOP FUCKING GEO-REDIRECTING LINKS FOR FOREIGNERS YOU ASSHOLES.

    Jesus christ fuck me gently it's the worst god damned thing to do on any web page, I think it might actually be worse than "this content is not available in your region" - because at least it takes us (mostly) to what we wanted.

    http://www.popsci.com/article/... [popsci.com]
    takes me to
    http://www.popsci.com.au/?src=... [popsci.com.au]

    Thanks dipshits.

    • by NoMaster (142776)

      Get around stupid geolocation redirects like that by using Google Translate as a proxy. Simply tell it to 'translate' the original URL from Arabic* to English.

      (* or almost any language that doesn't use the Roman alphabet.)

    • So, a magazine website would rather you visit their local version, to serve you better targeted ads, or local interest stories, or load leveling, or prices in local currency, or subscription services on the same continent, or maybe even to serve you better with faster access, and this is some American scheme to abuse you? Did it ever occur to you that an Australian company (or a German one, or...) wanting to create content unique to multiple continents might do the same thing? Or do you actually think URL r

  • by GrahamCox (741991) on Wednesday September 03, 2014 @12:07AM (#47814007) Homepage
    ...it's just another brick in the wall.

    For some reason people aren't breaking out the hammers. It's as if they just don't care, or fail to understand the implications at least, of all this surveillance and monitoring.
    • "First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
      Because I was not a Socialist.

      Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
      Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

      Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
      Because I was not a Jew.

      Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me."

      – Martin Niemoeller

  • so you mean to tell me that the telcos that spend millions, billions on spectrum licensing don't spot rogue basestations mooching on their frequency allocations ? Or were all of these in unlicensed spectrum ?
  • Mysterious, Phony Cell Towers

    Aren't all cell towers phone-y?

  • by sociocapitalist (2471722) on Wednesday September 03, 2014 @05:01AM (#47814919)

    Looks like Apple has built in detection from IOS 5 (though being Apple it might well have an off switch for legal intercept type applications):
    http://9to5mac.com/2011/06/07/... [9to5mac.com]

    And it looks like some developers have gotten together to do something for Android with a project called Android IMSI-Catcher Detector (AIMSICD)
    https://secupwn.github.io/Andr... [github.io]
    http://seclists.org/fulldisclo... [seclists.org]

    Has anyone tried this?

    • Looks like Apple has built in detection from IOS 5

      So, the iPhone he says unhelpfully didn't tell him there was a rogue tower...was actually aware of the rogue tower, and therefore not compromised? That it would have warned him if he tried to communicate through it, and has therefore already, for years, been doing the same thing his secure phone does? You mean someone who is selling a secure phone is making up a use case for it?

      You don't say.

  • If this applies to CDMA technology as well.
  • Take one out of action. See who responds. It's not that hard.

    Make sure your lawyer is on speeddial.

    E

  • by CaptainDork (3678879) on Wednesday September 03, 2014 @10:08AM (#47816241)

    ... and we can't find out who built the towers and who paid the freaking bill?

  • by h4ck7h3p14n37 (926070) on Wednesday September 03, 2014 @11:10AM (#47816833) Homepage
    Cities like Chicago are installing cellphone tracking devices to monitor pedestrian traffic. http://readwrite.com/2014/09/0... [readwrite.com] http://articles.chicagotribune... [chicagotribune.com] There's one at the top of a light pole in front of the Board of Trade on Jackson St. It looks like a small, black, round trash can.

What is wanted is not the will to believe, but the will to find out, which is the exact opposite. -- Bertrand Russell, "Skeptical Essays", 1928

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