Researchers hack Verizon device, turn it into mobile spy station

NEW YORK Mon Jul 15, 2013 7:57am EDT

A photo illustration shows the Verizon wireless carrier icon on a mobile phone screen in Encinitas, California June 6, 2013. REUTERS/Mike Blake

A photo illustration shows the Verizon wireless carrier icon on a mobile phone screen in Encinitas, California June 6, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Mike Blake

Related Video

Related Topics

NEW YORK (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.

(Reuters video showing part of demonstration:

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 two 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 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.

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

(Reporting by Jim Finkle; Editing by Richard Valdmanis, Tiffany Wu and Phil Berlowitz)

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see
Comments (8)
SavageNation wrote:
Wow, do you hear these “experts” from the industry side? They’re more worried about malware?
Bollocks. These hacks are so far above their level of expertise and intelligence they don’t want to deal with them at all, so they dismiss them out of hand.

Can You Hear Them Now? not so good…

Jul 15, 2013 7:59am EDT  --  Report as abuse
IronBalls wrote:
The problem with the entire internet and wireless industry is that it’s moved much too fast. The “R” in R&D is so lacking for the sake of getting the next junk toy to market to become instant millionaires and billionaires. Much of this could have been avoided in the research phases and protected. The other problem is that no one outside of the industry who approves these products for marketing knows how they work, and in many cases what they are used for.

Jul 15, 2013 9:42am EDT  --  Report as abuse
Unfortunately, the magnitude of complexity in cell phones, by themselves, leaves a reasonable person to assume that anything is possible; relative to spying & ‘locating.’

Secretly embedded spying hardware & software are old methodologies. The presumption of more sophisticated variations of “spy” technologies is reasonable to assume – that’s just the world we live in.

If anyone has anything to hide (or simply want a maximum of privacy), they should have the good sense to treat their cellphone (or other similar technology – including tablets) as a liability. Put the concerned device in a metal box, leave it at a different location; or whatever.

Public apathy is tough to estimate, but there is a reasonable possibility that a public cyber-revolt may get underway; including “cyber-frisking.” That is to say that in the case of desired privacy, all parties inquire as to whether anyone is ‘packing’ any potential ‘spy’ technology.

True spies and “terrorists” don’t use the ‘low level’ Internet and E-mail environment that the ‘public’ uses. The “Snowden Revelations” only point to electronic (and even snail-mail) snooping on the “American public,” in particular – disgusting!

Particularly from youthful groups, there can be a reasonable assumption of impish ‘counter-measures’ such as routinely saturating E-mails with all of the favorite NSA ‘red-flag’ terms to trigger useless examination of ‘snatched’ messages. Add false seemingly number-letter sequences falsely suggesting coded messages. A well designed version of such could electronically trigger a useless but ‘resource tasking’ decoding effort, similar to a panicked response to a false rumor.

The real risk is that the ‘powers-that-be’ can manufacture anything that they want; being able to ‘sell’ purely manufactured “evidence” to any judge or jury. If necessary, all the power mongers need to do is to insert terms such as “classified sources” and “national security.”

History has long recorded that false accusations & messy court proceedings are dangerous enough. You don’t need to put someone in prison to totally wreck the remainder of their lives – and their families.

The “Snowden Revelations” only bring home the point that life in America has permanently changed for the worse. It’s all a matter of what electronics may serve as a ‘snitch.’ The requisite genius is always going to be available.

It shouldn’t be too long before the term “preemptive paranoia” officially joins “politically correct,” in our not-so-brave-new-world.

Jul 15, 2013 1:29pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
This discussion is now closed. We welcome comments on our articles for a limited period after their publication.