News / Science & Technology

Researchers Hack Verizon Device, Turn it Into Mobile Spy Station

A cell phone user passes a Verizon store in New York in this April 27, 2006 file photo.
A cell phone user passes a Verizon store in New York in this April 27, 2006 file photo.
Reuters

Two security experts said they have figured out how to spy on Verizon Wireless mobile phone customers by hacking into devices the U.S. carrier sells to boost wireless signals indoors.
 

The finding, which the experts demonstrated to Reuters and will further detail at two hacking conferences this summer, comes at a time of intense global debate about electronic privacy, after top-secret U.S. surveillance programs were leaked by a former National Security Agency contractor, Edward Snowden, last month.

"This is not about how the NSA would attack ordinary people. This is about how ordinary people would attack ordinary people,'' said Tom Ritter, a senior consultant with the security firm iSEC Partners.
 

Verizon said it has updated the software on its signal-boosting devices, known as femtocells or network extenders, to prevent hackers from copying the technique of the two experts.
 

But Ritter said motivated hackers can still find other ways to hack the femtocells of Verizon, as well as those offered by some 30 carriers worldwide to their customers.

Femtocells, which act as tiny cellphone towers, can be purchased directly from Verizon for $250. Used models can be obtained online for about $150.  Ritter 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 by using a Verizon femtocell that they had previously hacked.
 

They declined to disclose how they had modified the software on the device, saying they do not want to make it any easier for criminals to figure out similar ways to hack femtocells.

   
The two said they plan to give more elaborate demonstrations wo weeks from now at the Black Hat and Def Con hacking conferences in Las Vegas. More than 15,000 security professionals and hackers are expected to attend those conferences, which feature talks on newly found bugs in communications systems, smart TVs, mobile devices and computers that run facilities from factories to oil rigs.

 

Verizon Wireless released a Linux software update in March that prevents its network extenders from being compromised in the manner reported by Ritter and DePerry, according to company spokesman David Samberg.

"The Verizon Wireless Network Extender remains a very secure and effective solution for our customers,'' Samberg said in a statement. He said there have been no reports of customers being impacted by the bug that the researchers had identified. The company is a joint venture between Verizon Communications Inc and Vodafone Group Plc.

 

Samberg said his company uses an internal security team as well as outside firms to look for vulnerabilities in the devices it sells, before and after they are released.

   
Still, the two researchers said they are able to use the hacked femtocell to spy on Verizon phones even after Verizon released that update because they had modified the device before the company pushed out 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.
 

They said that with a little more work, they could have weaponized it for stealth attacks by packaging all equipment needed for a surveillance operation into a backpack that could be dropped near a target they wanted to monitor.

   
For example, a group interested in potential mergers might place such a backpack in Manhattan restaurants frequented by investment bankers. Verizon's website said the device has a 40-foot range, but the researchers believe that could be expanded by adding specialized antennas.
 

The iSEC researchers are not the first to warn of vulnerabilities in femtocells, but claim to be the first to hack the femtocells of a U.S. carrier and also the first running on a wireless standard known as CDMA. Other hacking experts have previously uncovered security bugs in femtocells used by carriers in Europe.

   
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 cybersecurity and Technology, said that the group is more concerned about other potential cyber threats, such as malicious apps. He is not aware of anycase where attacks were launched via femtocells.
 

Still, he said, the industry is monitoring the issue: "Threats change every day.''

 

You May Like

Obama: Alaskans Feel Signs of Climate Change

They're seeing bigger storm surges as sea ice melts, more wildfires, erosion of glaciers, shorelines More

Katrina Brought Enduring Changes to New Orleans

The city’s recovery is the result of the people and culture the city is famous for, as well as newcomers and start-up industries More

Magical Photo Slides Show Native Americans in Late 1800s

Walter McClintock spent 20 years photographing the Blackfoot Indians and their vanishing culture at the dawn of the modern age More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalatesi
X
August 27, 2015 2:08 AM
Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Is China's Economic Data Accurate?

Some investors say China's wild stock market gyrations have been made worse by worries about the reliability of that nation's economic data. And some critics say the reports can mislead investors by painting an unrealistically-strong picture of the economy. A key China scholar says Beijing is not fudging ((manipulating)) the numbers, but that the economy is evolving quickly from smoke-stack industries to services, and the ways of tracking new economic activity are falling behind the change. V
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Shipping Containers Provide Experimental Housing

Housing prices around the San Francisco Bay area are out of reach for many people, so some young entrepreneurs, artists and tech industry workers are creating their own houses using converted shipping containers. But as VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports from Oakland, the effort requires ingenuity and dealing with restrictive local laws.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video Technique May Eliminate Drill-and-Fill Dental Care

Many people dread visiting dentists because they're afraid of drills. Now, however, a technology developed by a British firm promises to eliminate the need for mechanical cleaning of dental cavities by speeding a natural process of tooth repair. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.
Video

Video French Experiment in Integrating Roma Under Threat

Plans to destroy France’s oldest slum have sparked an outcry on the part of its Roma residents. As Lisa Bryant reports from the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, rights groups argue the community is a fledgling experiment on integrating Roma who are often outcasts in many parts of Europe.
Video

Video Kenyans Turn to Agriculture for Business

Each year Kenyan universities continue to churn out graduates for the job market despite the already existing high rate of unemployment among youth in the country. Some of these young men and women have realized that agriculture can be as rewarding as any other business or job, and they are resorting to agribusiness in large numbers as a way of tackling unemployment. Rael Ombuor reports for VOA.
Video

Video First Women Graduate Elite Army Ranger School

Two women are making history for the U.S. Army by proving they are among the toughest of the tough. VOA's Carla Babb reports from Fort Benning, Georgia as 94 men and those two women rise as graduates of the difficult Ranger school.

VOA Blogs