The device tricks the phones into disabling encryption and records call details and content before they are 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.
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.