Researchers can hack Verizon Wireless femtocells to spy on customers

Jul 17, 2013, 07:00 pm EST

Two security researchers announced that they have succeeded to transform Verizon mobile phones into spy tools to track Verizon’s users.

The security experts revealed to the Reuters agency that it is possible to hack Verizon mobile phones for surveillance purpose; the researchers will present the discovery during the next hacking conferences this summer, the DEF CON and Black Hat.

In particular those hackers could compromise the femtocell commercialized by Verizon Wireless a joint venture between Verizon Communications Inc and Vodafone Group Plc.

According Wikipedia a femtocell is:

“In telecommunications, a femtocell is a small, low-power cellular base station, typically designed for use in a home or small business. A broader term which is more widespread in the industry is small cell, with femtocell as a subset. It connects to the service provider’s network via broadband (such as DSL or cable); current designs typically support two to four active mobile phones in a residential setting, and eight to 16 active mobile phones in enterprise settings. A femtocell allows service providers to extend service coverage indoors or at the cell edge, especially where access would otherwise be limited or unavailable. Although much attention is focused on WCDMA, the concept is applicable to all standards, including GSM, CDMA2000, TD-SCDMA, WiMAX and LTE solutions.

For a mobile operator, the attractions of a femtocell are improvements to both coverage and capacity, especially indoors. Consumers benefit from improved coverage and potentially better voice quality and battery life. Depending on the carrier they may also be offered more attractive tariffs, e.g., discounted calls from home.”


The news doesn’t surprise me, the massive introduction of technology in our life is increasing of digital exposure, mobile phones are excellent devices to spy on victims.

Tom Ritter, a senior consultant with the security firm iSEC Partners and his colleague, Doug DePerry, demonstrated for Reuters how they can eavesdrop on text messages, photos and phone calls made with an Android phone and an iPhone that access to the network through a Verizon femtocell that they had previously hacked.

The iSEC researchers aren’t the first to discover vulnerabilities in femtocells devices, but they claim to be the first to hack the femtocells of a US carrier and also the first running on a wireless standard known as CDMA.

The two researchers announced that they don’t have intention to reveal the details of the hack to avoid emulation phenomena; they will merely propose to give more elaborate demonstrations during the popular hacking conferences planned for this summer.

The discovery of the surveillance problem such as PRISM and Tempora should make us reflect on the risks connected to the abuse of technology to violate the user’s privacy, what is really concerning is the possibility that hackers and ordinary individuals could exploit the intelligence components within the objects that surround us.

“This is not about how the NSA would attack ordinary people. This is about how ordinary people would attack ordinary people,” said Ritter.

The good news is that Verizon company has already announced to have updated the software on its signal-boosting devices, also known as femtocells or network extenders, to avoid that hackers will adopt the technique of the two researchers.

Verizon Wireless released a software update for the Linux distribution that equips its network extenders to avoid that hackers could compromise femtocells with technique described by Ritter and DePerry, as announced by Verizon spokesman David Samberg.

“The Verizon Wireless Network Extender remains a very secure and effective solution for our customers,” said Samberg.

According Verizon Wireless company no customer has been impacted since now, the  Verizon Wireless spokesman remarked that every delivered product is carefully tested by a company security team that search for vulnerabilities during the entire product Lifecycle.

The bad news is that the two experts declared to be still able to use the hackedfemtocell to spy on Verizon mobile devices although Verizon Wireless released that software update, it seems in fact that the spying activity is still possible on thefemtocell that researchers had modified before the company issued the software fix.

The researchers built their “proof of concept” system that they will demonstrate in Las Vegas with femtocells manufactured by Samsung Electronics Co and a $50 antenna from Wilson Electronics Inc.

Ritter and DePerry will demonstrate the hack during the next conference in Las Vegas with a “proof of concept” system and testing it with femtocells manufactured by Samsung Electronics Co and a $50 antenna from Wilson Electronics Inc.

The evolution of the POC could be represented by a portable appliance, housed in a backpack, which could be used for a surveillance operation once located near a target, Verizon Wireless in fact sustains that the device has a 40-foot range that could be expanded by adding specialized antennas.

According Reuters post other companies already warned on the possibility to attackfemtocells:

“CTIA, a wireless industry group based in Washington, in February released a report that identified femtocells as a potential point of attack. John Marinho, CTIA’s vice president for cyber security and Technology, said that the group is more concerned about other potential cyber threats, such as malicious apps. He is not aware of any case where attacks were launched via femtocells.

It’s clear that the telecom industry has to monitor carefully the security of infrastructures and the possibility to exploit vulnerability within them for sabotage and cyber espionage purposes.

(Source: CDM, Pierluigi Paganini, Editor and Chief )

July 17, 2013

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