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

Could Nemtsov Threaten Putin in Death as in Life?

Dynamic and debonair opposition leader had supported liberal economic reforms, criticized Russian president's aggression in Ukraine More

Oil Smuggling Highlights Challenges in Shutting Down IS Finances

Pentagon spokesman says Islamic State 'certainly continues to get revenue from the oil industry black market' but that airstrikes have made a dent More

India Focuses on Infrastructure, Investment to Propel Economy

Government expects economy to grow at 8 to 8.5 percent in next fiscal year More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
US Supreme Court Hears Hijab Discrimination Casei
X
Katherine Gypson
February 25, 2015 11:30 PM
The U.S. Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a workplace religious discrimination case that examines whether a clothing store can refuse to hire a young woman for wearing the headscarf she says is a symbol of her Muslim faith. Katherine Gypson reports from the Supreme Court.
Video

Video US Supreme Court Hears Hijab Discrimination Case

The U.S. Supreme Court has heard opening arguments in a workplace religious discrimination case that examines whether a clothing store can refuse to hire a young woman for wearing the headscarf she says is a symbol of her Muslim faith. Katherine Gypson reports from the Supreme Court.
Video

Video Falling Gas Prices Hurt Nascent Illinois Hydraulic Fracturing Industry

Falling oil prices are helping consumers purchase cheaper petroleum at the pump. But that’s made hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” less economically viable for the companies in the United States invested in the process. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports on one Midwestern town that was hoping to change its fortunes by cashing in on the next big U.S. oil boom.
Video

Video Fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan Fuels Mass Displacement

Heavy fighting in Sudan's South Kordofan state is causing hundreds of thousands to flee into uncertain conditions. Local aid organizations estimate as many as 400,000 civilians have been internally displaced since the conflict began more than three years ago, while another 250,000 have fled across the border to refugee camps in South Sudan. VOA's Adam Bailes reports.
Video

Video Lao Dam Project Runs Into Opposition

A Lao dam project on a section of the Mekong River is drawing opposition from local fishermen, international environmental groups and neighboring countries. VOA's Say Mony visited the region to investigate the concerns. Colin Lovett narrates.
Video

Video A Filmmaker Discovers Her Biracial Identity in "Little White Lie

Lacey Schwartz grew up in an upper middle-class Jewish family, in a town in upstate New York where almost everyone she knew was white. She assumed that she was, as well. Her recent documentary, Little White Lie, tells the story of how she uncovered the secret of her true racial background. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more on the film.
Video

Video Deep Under Antarctic Ice Sheet, Life!

With the end of summer in the Southern hemisphere, the Antarctic research season is over. Scientists from Northern Illinois University are back in their laboratory after a 3-month expedition on the Ross Ice Shelf, the world’s largest floating ice sheet. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, they hope to find clues to explain the dynamics of the rapidly melting ice and its impact on sea level rise.
Video

Video US-Cuba Normalization Talks Resume Friday

Negotiations aimed at normalizing diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba resume Friday. On the table: lifting a half-century trade embargo and easing banking and travel restrictions. There's opposition in Congress, but some analysts say there may be sufficient political and economic incentives in both nations for a potential breakthrough this year. VOA's Mil Arcega reports.
Video

Video Pakistan's Deadline For SIM Registration Has Cellphone Users Scrambling

Pakistani cell phone users have until midnight Thursday to register their SIM cards, or their service will be cut off. While some privacy experts worry about government intrusion, many Pakistanis are just worried about keeping their phone lines open. VOA Deewa reporter Arshad Muhmand has more from Peshawar.
Video

Video Myanmar Warns Factory Workers to End Strikes

Outside Myanmar's main city Yangon, thousands of workers walked off their jobs earlier this month demanding a doubling of their wages, pay raises after a year and input from labor unions on industrial regulations. Since Friday, the standoff has grown more tense as police moved in to disrupt the sit-ins, resulting in clashes that injured people from both sides. VOA correspondent Steve Herman visited industrial zones which have become a focus of Myanmar's fledgling workers rights movement.
Video

Video Oscar Winners Do More Than Thank the Academy

The Academy Awards presentation is Hollywood’s night to reward the best movies from the previous year. It’s typically a lot of glitter, a lot of thank you’s, a lot of speeches. But many of this year’s speeches carried messages beyond the thank you's. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti takes a look.

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More