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All private phone calls, text messages exposed by fatal flaw in global cellular network

Cellular network

(NaturalNews) What if every single call, text message or data transmission that you made from your mobile phone could be intercepted and decrypted by hackers using advanced software programs? A team of German scientists says this is definitely possible within the current cellular infrastructure, which contains a number of serious vulnerabilities which suggest that nothing we say or do these days is truly private.

Tobias Engel and his colleague Karsten Nohl are set to speak on these cellular network flaws at an upcoming hacker conference in Hamburg. The SS7 infrastructure, also known as Signaling System 7, is what most of the world's cellular networks still used to transmit voice and data. But it was originally developed back in the 1980s and is thus prone to attacks by more advanced technologies capable of bypassing its encryption.

According to The Washington Post (WP), the functions intentionally built into SS7 that make it possible for calls to take place while a person drives down the highway, for instance, bouncing that call from tower to tower, can be repurposed and used for evil purposes such as surveillance. These same functions, which allow users to call and text between networks and across the globe, can also be used to locate users.

Some mobile phone carriers have begun actively updating their systems to counter these system flaws, but the larger network infrastructure of SS7 is still the same as it's always been -- and it has to be in order to properly route calls, texts, and data requests. Unless the entire system is revamped at all points across the global network, smaller carriers, for instance, or national governments, will have a relatively open door for spying.

"It's like you secure the front door of the house, but the back door is wide open," explained Engel to the WP.

An earlier WP report on SS7 vulnerabilities revealed that surveillance systems have already been developed to break into the system and monitor and locate users. Whether or not governments or security groups have used them for such purposes isn't entirely clear, but Engel, Nohl and others say entities as large as the National Security Agency (NSA) or as small as a basement hacker could use them to spy on members of the public.

"Many of the big intelligence agencies probably have teams that do nothing but SS7 research and exploitation," says Christopher Soghoian, principal technologist for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and an expert in surveillance technology, as quoted by the WP. "They've likely sat on these things and quietly exploited them."

In the U.S., hacking tests conducted on the T-Mobile wireless network revealed that intercepting calls and texts is definitely possible. Even when strong carrier-specific encryption is present through advanced 3G or other connection types, hackers can still intercept calls and texts by requesting a temporary encryption key from the carrier.

In another test, Engel and his team hacked the mobile phone of a German senator who agreed to participate in the experiment. Not only was it possible to decrypt a text message on the senator's phone, but the team demonstrated that it may be possible to automate the decryption of texts and calls collected throughout an entire city or across a large section of the country using specialized software and antennas.

"It's all automated, at the push of a button," stated Nohl. "It would strike me as a perfect spying capability, to record and decrypt pretty much any network... Any network we have tested, it works."

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