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.

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

Video In US, Columbus Day Still Generates Controversy

Holiday marks date Columbus discovered Americas, but some are offended by legacy because he enslaved many natives he encountered More

Video Through Sports, Austria Tries to Give Migrants Traction

With 85,000 people expected to claim asylum in Austria this year, its government has made integration through joint physical activities a key objective More

Video Kickboxing Champion Shares Sport With Young Migrants

Pouring into Europe by hundreds of thousands, some migrants, especially youngsters, are finding sports a way to integrate into new host countries More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Amnesty Accuses Saudi Coalition of ‘War Crimes’ in Yemeni
Henry Ridgwell
October 12, 2015 4:03 PM
The human rights group Amnesty International has accused the Saudi-led coalition of war crimes in airstrikes against Houthi rebels in Yemen. Henry Ridgwell reports the group says hundreds of civilians have been killed in strikes on residential areas.

Video Amnesty Accuses Saudi Coalition of ‘War Crimes’ in Yemen

The human rights group Amnesty International has accused the Saudi-led coalition of war crimes in airstrikes against Houthi rebels in Yemen. Henry Ridgwell reports the group says hundreds of civilians have been killed in strikes on residential areas.

Video No Resolution in Sight to US House Speaker Drama

Uncertainty grips the U.S. Congress, where no consensus replacement has emerged to succeed Republican House Speaker John Boehner after his surprise resignation announcement. Half of Congress is effectively leaderless weeks before America risks defaulting on its national debt and enduring another partial government shutdown.

Video New Art Exhibit Focuses on Hope

Out of struggle and despair often comes hope. That idea is behind a new art exhibit at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. "The Big Hope Show" features 25 artists, some of whom overcame trauma and loss. VOA’s Deborah Block reports.

Video Columbus Day Still Generates Controversy as US Holiday

The second Monday of October is Columbus Day in the United States, honoring explorer Christopher Columbus and his discovery of the Americas. The achievement is a source of pride for many, but for some the holiday is marked by controversy. Adrianna Zhang has more.

Video Anger Simmers as Turks Begin to Bury Blast Victims

The Turkish army carried out new air strikes on Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) targets on Sunday, a day after the banned group announced a unilateral cease fire. The air raids apparently are in retaliation for the Saturday bombing in Turkey's capital Ankara that killed at least 95 people and wounded more than 200 others. But as Zlatica Hoke reports, there are suspicions that Islamic State is involved.

Video Bombings a Sign of Turkey’s Deep Troubles

Turkey has begun a three-day period of mourning following Saturday’s bomb attacks in the capital, Ankara, that killed nearly 100 people. With contentious parliamentary elections three weeks away, the attacks highlight the challenges Turkey is facing as it struggles with ethnic friction, an ongoing migrant crisis, and growing tensions with Russia. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Video Afghanistan’s Progress Aided by US Academic Center

Recent combat in Afghanistan has shifted world attention back to the central Asian nation’s continuing civil war and economic challenges. But, while there are many vexing problems facing Afghanistan’s government and people, a group of academics in Omaha, Nebraska has kept a strong faith in the nation’s future through programs to improve education. VOA’s Greg Flakus has more from Omaha, Nebraska.

Video House Republicans in Chaos as Speaker Favorite Withdraws

The Republican widely expected to become the next speaker of the House of Representatives shocked his colleagues Thursday by announcing he was withdrawing his candidacy. The decision by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy means the race to succeed retiring Speaker John Boehner is now wide open. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports.

Video German, US Officials Investigate Volkswagen

German officials have taken steps to restore some of the reputation their car industry has lost after a recent Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal. Authorities have searched Volkswagen headquarters and other locations in an effort to identify the culprits in the creation of software that helps cheat on emission tests. Meanwhile, a group of lawmakers in Washington held a hearing to get to the bottom of the cheating strategy that was first discovered in the United States. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Why Are Gun Laws So Hard for Congress to Tackle?

Since taking office, President Barack Obama has spoken out or issued statements about 15 mass shootings. The most recent shooting, in which 10 people were killed at a community college, sparked outrage over the nation's gun laws. But changing those laws isn't as easy as many think. VOA's Carolyn Presutti reports.

Video In 'He Named Me Malala,' Guggenheim Finds Normal in Extraordinary

Davis Guggenheim’s documentary "He Named Me Malala" offers a probing look into the life of 18-year-old Malala Yousafsai, the Pakistani teenager who, in 2012, was shot in the head by the Taliban for standing up for her right to education in her hometown in Pakistan's Swat Valley. Guggenheim shows how, since then, Malala has become a symbol not as a victim of brutal violence, but as an advocate for girls’ education throughout the world. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.

Video Paintable Solar Cells May Someday Replace Silicon-Based Panels

Solar panels today are still factory-manufactured, with the use of some highly toxic substances such as cadmium chloride. But a researcher at St. Mary’s College, Maryland, says we are close to being able to create solar panels by painting them on a suitable surface, using nontoxic solutions. VOA’s George Putic reports.

VOA Blogs