Researchers Hijack Cell Phone Data, GSM Locations [telecom]

A pair of security researchers has discovered a number of new attack vectors that give them the ability to not only locate any GSM mobile handset anywhere in the world, but also find the name of the subscriber associated with virtually any cellular phone number, raising serious privacy and security concerns for customers of all of the major mobile providers.

The research, which Don Bailey of iSec Partners and independent security researcher Nick DePetrillo will present at the SOURCE conference in Boston today [21-APR-2010], builds upon earlier work on geolocation of GSM handsets and exposes a number of fundamental weaknesses in the architecture of mobile providers' networks. However, these are not software or hardware vulnerabilities that can be patched or mitigated with workarounds. Rather, they are features and functionality built into the networks and back-end systems that Bailey and DePetrillo have found ways to abuse in order to discover information that most cell users assume is private and known only to the cell provider.

"I haven't seen anything out there anywhere on this. Who owns a cell number isn't private," DePetrillo said. "If you go through entire number ranges and blocks, you'll get numbers for celebrities, executives, anyone. You can then track them easily using the geolocation information."

At the heart of the work the pair did is their ability to access the caller ID database mobile providers use to match the names of subscribers to mobile numbers. This is the same database that contains the subscriber information for landlines, but most mobile users don't realize that their data is entered into this repository, Bailey said.

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Thad Floryan
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