Home opinion-and-analysis Cornered! Intercepting cellphone calls really is child's play
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Intercepting cellphone calls really is child's play

  • 17 November 2006
  • Written by 
  • Published in Cornered!
Since my earlier comments  on reports that mobile phones can be compromised and calls intercepted, simply by sending an SMS that contains reprogramming instructions, the originator of the technique has responded to the questions I raised.

It now appears that the compromised phone, unbeknownst to the user, simply creates a three way conference call with the attacker for every call made and received. Scary!

German security company, SecurStar, claimed to have uncovered the first serious threat to the security of cellphone conversations, saying that "Simply by sending an invisible and unnoticeable SMS message to a particular cellphone, spying on cell phone users has become child's play."

I suggested that the security of mobile phones had long been compromised by the development of IMSI- catchers, hardware devices that intercept GSM calls over the air and exploit weaknesses in the GSM encryption algorithm.

 Wifried Hafner, CEO of SecurStar responded to this, telling me: "Yes IMSI catchers have been around for several years but it is not easy to get such equipment and monitoring cannot be made by just anyone."

I also queried his claim that interception is 'child's play' since he had given no indication as to how the call is retrieved from the compromised phone. It does indeed appear to be child's play. Here is what Hafner told me:

"We can sent a service SMS to any phone (regardless of the operating system) and reprogram the SIM card and/or parts of the phone. (A service SMS is a specially formatted SMS that contains data instructions for the reconfiguration /programming and/or update of phones and SIM cards.).

"While usually a service SMS should be sent by the provider to upgrade the SIM card and configure the phone, normal users can also simulate this and send a service SMS. Here the phone and SIM card of the victim are reprogrammed in a way that each entering or exiting phone call are silently conferenced with the attacker.

"It is the victim's phone that creates a second 'hidden' conference call to the attacker. Also the victim pays for this second telephone call. (Equivalent to a 3-way conference call) In order not to show on the monthly bill, the attacker can chose to get called on an anonymous 0800 number that is redirected through VoIP. In this way the call is not charged to the victim and the number does not appear on the monthly statement."

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