UK Mobile Network Actually Hacked

Femtocell mass marketing by Vodafone at Holland Park

Image by ianfogg42 via Flickr

Whereas the News Of The World Phone ‘Hacking’ scandal was really about dodgy opportunists working for News International who dialled into other people’s mobile voicemail using default passwords, there is news across the internet today that core network components of the UK Vodafone 3G network have actually been hacked. First spotted on web blog The Hackers Choice and tweeted by @Nissemus, some intrepid souls have taken apart a Vodafone Sure Signal box. This device is known in the industry as a Femtocell; a miniature mobile base station which connects to the Vodafone network via the internet. It is sold by Vodafone as a solution for people who have internet at home but no mobile signal. Now, by making some modifications to the box and with some knowledge of Linux and networking, the box can be used to capture details of other people’s mobile phones and further to use that data to request data from the Vodafone core. An unscrupulous hacker could then make calls or send SMS messages using those details without having access to the actual mobile phone of the user concerned, along with other listed exploits. Worst still, the underlying paranoia of the recent “phone hacking scandal” headlines becomes real – the hacker could listen to and record the phone calls of any mobile subscriber trapped in this way. 3G networks have always been assumed to be the most secure with all traffic highly encrypted using keys; keys that would now be available using the methods described.

So far there has been little comment outside of the anorak networks but given the appetite for mobile-hacking-related panic fodder, this story is likely to grow quickly. Unlike the voicemail problem, this does actually have a basis in technical reality as an actual ‘hacking’ exploit. Vodafone are yet to comment but one would hope that a simple password change at the core and careful monitoring of network requests from Sure Signal boxes would limit the potential for mischief. Still, with the advent of mobile payment solutions, this is not the time for any doubts about the security of commercial mobile networks !

 

6 Comments

PhilTJuly 14th, 2011 at 11:08 am

This sort of problem was at least anticipated by the standards bodies 3 years ago so won’t be a big shock to anyone clued up http://www.gsmworld.com/documents/fcg0510.pdf

JennyJuly 14th, 2011 at 6:19 pm

Hi,

I just wanted to let you know that you can now see our statement with more information regarding this here: http://goo.gl/zCfG2

Kind regards,

Jenny
Web Relations Team
Vodafone UK

SimonJuly 14th, 2011 at 9:21 pm

Thanks Jenny. Based on that response, sounds like a lot of fuss about nothing then.

SimonJuly 14th, 2011 at 9:35 pm

Also since followed up by The Register, repeating the Voda line. Reflects the currency such the hacking report gained when sensitivities have been heightened by the NotW frenzy. Check out the article at:

http://www.theregister.co.uk/2011/07/14/voda_dismisses_femtocell_base_station_hack/

ihearthorsesJuly 14th, 2011 at 10:17 pm

Simon:
All Vodafone have done is change the default password on the boxes used for the hacking. If you already *have* one of these boxes, then you are free to carry on hacking around Voda’s network as you please.

I predict a very good black market coming up in ‘unlocked’ SureSignal boxes…..

SimonJuly 14th, 2011 at 10:59 pm

Fair point, IHT (I was being a little ironic in my reply to VF). I think just out of curiosity, people will be trying to blag a Femtocell to play with.

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