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Everything You Believed About Telephone Security is Wrong - The SS7 Scandal

The scary version...
A massive security hole in modern telecommunications is exposing billions of mobile phone users in the world to covert theft of their data, bugging of their voice calls, and geo-tracking of their location from by hackers, fraudsters, rogue governments and unscrupulous commercial operators using hundreds of online portals across the planet. 

In a world-first, 60 Minutes has proven the worst nightmares of privacy advocates around the world: that mobile phone calls and data are wide open to interception because of flaws in the architecture of the signalling system – known as SS7 - used to enable mobile phone roaming across telecommunications providers. Despite this concern, the Australian Government’s own Cyber Security Threat Report, published in June, makes no mention of what is probably the biggest threat to this country’s commercial secrets and individual privacy.

60 Minutes’ story shows how German hackers working from Berlin, given legal access to SS7 for the purposes of the demonstration, were able to intercept and record a mobile phone conversation between 60 Minutes reporter Ross Coulthart while he was speaking from Germany to Independent Australian Senator Nick Xenophon in Australia’s Parliament House. As further proof of the hack, Coulthart then made another phone call from London, England, to the Senator in Australia which the Berlin hackers were also able to intercept and record, even though they were in Germany 1000 kilometres distant. The Berlin hackers from SR Labs, who first warned of the vulnerability in SS7 in 2008, were also able to intercept and read the Senator’s SMS’ from Australia to Coulthart in London. The hackers were also then able to geo-track the Senator as he travelled to Japan on official business, mapping his movements around Tokyo and Narita down to the nearest cell tower (within a few hundred metres), and later precisely tracking around the streets of his South Australian home suburb when he returned to Australia. 

The demonstration also shows how the key fraud protection relied on by banks to protect banking transactions from fraud – verification by SMS message – is useless against a determined hacker with access to the SS7 portal because they can intercept and use the SMS code before it gets to the bank customer. The same technique can also be used to take over someone’s online email account. The call-forwarding capacity of SS7 also allows any mobile to be forcibly redirected to call hugely expensive premium numbers, the cost of which is then billed to that customer’s account. SS7 also allows any number to be blocked, raising the fearful possibility that the vulnerability could be used by criminals or terrorists to stop a victim from calling police or emergency services. Cellular telephony is also used to remotely manage large industrial equipment, to send instructions to gas, electricity and other utililities and factories over 2G and 3G mobile communications. It is not inconceivable that an SS7 hack could be used to change settings or shut down a power station. more

The counterpoint version...
If you own a mobile phone, “you can be bugged, tracked and hacked from anywhere in the world”. That was the throughline of a particularly problematic story on the 60 Minutes program last night. It’s now being hailed as “the end of privacy” for all Australians, but let me assure you, that moment passed a long time ago. 

“How it has been done, has never been shown before”, claimed the 20-minute report which demonstrated how a vulnerability in a global forwarding network can be “hijacked” to listen in on a user’s calls and text messages in real time. 

After a lot of teasing and set-up, the report eventually took us to a basement in Germany, where security researcher Luca Melette demonstrated how he could intercept a phone call between the reporter and Australian Senator Nick Xenophon. Luca was able to intercept the call (if we’re to believe that there wasn’t any camera trickery going on), as well as a text message sent between the pair. Big drums. The hack has been reveeeeeeealed. more

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