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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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  • Article full text (Score:5, Informative)

    by gargleblast (683147) on Tuesday September 02, 2014 @10:33PM (#47813537)

    Source. [immaculata.edu]

    Mysterious Phony Cell Towers Could Be Intercepting Your Calls

    Wed, 08/27/2014 - 11:00

    Unencrypted Connection Les Goldsmith Like many of the ultra-secure phones that have come to market in the wake of Edward Snowden's leaks, the CryptoPhone 500, which is marketed in the U.S. by ESD America and built on top of an unassuming Samsung Galaxy SIII body, features high-powered encryption. Les Goldsmith, the CEO of ESD America, says the phone also runs a customized or "hardened" version of Android that removes 468 vulnerabilities that his engineering team team found in the stock installation of the OS.

    His mobile security team also found that the version of the Android OS that comes standard on the Samsung Galaxy SIII leaks data to parts unknown 80-90 times every hour. That doesn't necessarily mean that the phone has been hacked, Goldmsith says, but the user can't know whether the data is beaming out from a particular app, the OS, or an illicit piece of spyware. His clients want real security and control over their device, and have the money to pay for it.

    To show what the CryptoPhone can do that less expensive competitors cannot, he points me to a map that he and his customers have created, indicating 17 different phony cell towers known as “interceptors,” detected by the CryptoPhone 500 around the United States during the month of July alone. 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.

    “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.”

    Who is running these interceptors and what are they doing with the calls? Goldsmith says we can’t be sure, but he has his suspicions.

    “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.”

    Ciphering Disabled Les Goldsmith

    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. Whether your phone uses Android or iOS, it also has a second operating system that runs on a part of the phone called a baseband processor. The baseband processor functions as a communications middleman between the phone’s main O.S. and the cell towers. And because chip manufacturers jealously guard details about the baseband O.S., it has been too challenging a target for garden-variety hackers.

    “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

  • 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 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.
  • 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]

  • Makes me feel old (Score:4, Informative)

    by dbIII (701233) on Wednesday September 03, 2014 @04:34AM (#47814837)
    The kids today need to learn the lessons we did when the operator could very obviously listen in to every call and would sometimes even break in and say something. The technology has changed but the capability is not just still there, it's easier. Never say anything on a phone that you would hate to see in a newspaper (or on a blog) - that most definitely includes credit card numbers.

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