Active 4G LTE Vulnerability Allows Hackers to See Texts, Track Location
Your phone may not be a secure as you thought it once was.
Zhang Wanqiao, a Chinese researcher from Qihoo has demonstrated how a hacker could eavesdrop on conversations, read texts and see a smartphone’s location all through a 4G LTE vulnerability.
The 4G vulnerability is exploitable on any LTE network and is based off a “fail-safe” that is to be used during emergencies, such as natural disasters or when phone towers have become overloaded and redirection is necessary.
The hack works by using fake LTE towers to downgrade a phone’s LTE connection to a 3G connection and then finally to a 2G connection where many vulnerabilities can be exploited.
Researchers have brought up this vulnerability before. 3GPP, an organization in charge of setting mobile data network standards and enforcing them, acknowledged the issue in 2006 but did nothing to patch it. In 2015, a paper titled: Practical attacks against privacy and availability in 4G/LTE mobile communication systems outlined a similar incident that could allow a cybercriminal to access private information from one’s smartphone. That same year, ACLU obtained documents that described the vulnerability as having identical functionalities to stingray surveillance, used by law enforcement to track a suspect’s cell phone.
At DEFCON 24 in August, Wanqiao extended the initial findings of the researchers and presented it at the conference. Then this month, he showed attendees at Ruxcon that the vulnerability could be used across al LTE networks in the world with readily available gear.
Some have speculated that the vulnerability has not been patched on purpose, to allow law enforcement to continue their stingray surveillance.
The attack involves readily available hardware and open source software, so any dedicated hacker could be accessing your phone right now. But as the 3GPP has shown, it’s been 10 years and there have been no moves made to fix this vulnerability.