Entries Tagged "phones"

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Technical Details on the FBI's Wiretapping Network

There’s a must-read article on Wired.com about DCSNet (Digital Collection System Network), the FBI’s high-tech point-and-click domestic wiretapping network. The information is based on nearly 1,000 pages of documentation released under FOIA to the EFF.

Together, the surveillance systems let FBI agents play back recordings even as they are being captured (like TiVo), create master wiretap files, send digital recordings to translators, track the rough location of targets in real time using cell-tower information, and even stream intercepts outward to mobile surveillance vans.

FBI wiretapping rooms in field offices and undercover locations around the country are connected through a private, encrypted backbone that is separated from the internet. Sprint runs it on the government’s behalf.

The network allows an FBI agent in New York, for example, to remotely set up a wiretap on a cell phone based in Sacramento, California, and immediately learn the phone’s location, then begin receiving conversations, text messages and voicemail pass codes in New York. With a few keystrokes, the agent can route the recordings to language specialists for translation.

The numbers dialed are automatically sent to FBI analysts trained to interpret phone-call patterns, and are transferred nightly, by external storage devices, to the bureau’s Telephone Application Database, where they’re subjected to a type of data mining called link analysis.

FBI endpoints on DCSNet have swelled over the years, from 20 “central monitoring plants” at the program’s inception, to 57 in 2005, according to undated pages in the released documents. By 2002, those endpoints connected to more than 350 switches.

Today, most carriers maintain their own central hub, called a “mediation switch,” that’s networked to all the individual switches owned by that carrier, according to the FBI. The FBI’s DCS software links to those mediation switches over the internet, likely using an encrypted VPN. Some carriers run the mediation switch themselves, while others pay companies like VeriSign to handle the whole wiretapping process for them.

Much, much more in the article. (And much chatter on this Slashdot thread.)

EDITED TO ADD (8/31): Commentary by Matt Blaze and Steve Bellovin.

Posted on August 29, 2007 at 11:39 AMView Comments

Interview with National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell

Mike McConnell, U.S. National Intelligence Director, gave an interesting interview to the El Paso Times.

I don’t think he’s ever been so candid before. For example, he admitted that the nation’s telcos assisted the NSA in their massive eavesdropping efforts. We already knew this, of course, but the government has steadfastly maintained that either confirming or denying this would compromise national security.

There are, of course, moments of surreality. He said that it takes 200 hours to prepare a FISA warrant. Ryan Single calculated that since there were 2,167 such warrants in 2006, there must be “218 government employees with top secret clearances sitting in rooms, writing only FISA warrants.” Seems unlikely.

But most notable is this bit:

Q. So you’re saying that the reporting and the debate in Congress means that some Americans are going to die?

A. That’s what I mean. Because we have made it so public. We used to do these things very differently, but for whatever reason, you know, it’s a democratic process and sunshine’s a good thing. We need to have the debate.

Ah, the politics of fear. I don’t care if it’s the terrorists or the politicians, refuse to be terrorized. (More interesting discussions on the interview here, here, here, here, here, and here.)

Posted on August 24, 2007 at 6:30 AMView Comments

The New U.S. Wiretapping Law and Security

Last week, Congress gave President Bush new wiretapping powers. I was going to write an essay on the security implications of this, but Susan Landau beat me to it:

To avoid wiretapping every communication, NSA will need to build massive automatic surveillance capabilities into telephone switches. Here things get tricky: Once such infrastructure is in place, others could use it to intercept communications.

Grant the NSA what it wants, and within 10 years the United States will be vulnerable to attacks from hackers across the globe, as well as the militaries of China, Russia and other nations.

Such threats are not theoretical. For almost a year beginning in April 2004, more than 100 phones belonging to members of the Greek government, including the prime minister and ministers of defense, foreign affairs, justice and public order, were spied on with wiretapping software that was misused. Exactly who placed the software and who did the listening remain unknown. But they were able to use software that was supposed to be used only with legal permission.

[…]

U.S. communications technology is fragile and easily penetrated. While advanced, it is not decades ahead of that of our friends or our rivals. Compounding the issue is a key facet of modern systems design: Intercept capabilities are likely to be managed remotely, and vulnerabilities are as likely to be global as local. In simplifying wiretapping for U.S. intelligence, we provide a target for foreign intelligence agencies and possibly rogue hackers. Break into one service, and you get broad access to U.S. communications.

More about the Greek wiretapping scandal. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the excellent book by Whitfield Diffie and Susan Landau on the subject: Privacy on the Line: The Politics of Wiretapping and Encryption.

Posted on August 9, 2007 at 3:29 PMView Comments

Story of the Greek Wiretapping Scandal

I’ve blogged a few times about the Greek wiretapping scandal. A system to allow the police to eavesdrop on conversations was abused (surprise, surprise).

Anyway, there’s a really good technical analysis in IEEE Spectrum this month.

On 9 March 2005, a 38-year-old Greek electrical engineer named Costas Tsalikidis was found hanged in his Athens loft apartment, an apparent suicide. It would prove to be merely the first public news of a scandal that would roil Greece for months.

The next day, the prime minister of Greece was told that his cellphone was being bugged, as were those of the mayor of Athens and at least 100 other high-ranking dignitaries, including an employee of the U.S. embassy. [See sidebar “CEOs, MPs, & a PM.”]

The victims were customers of Athens-based Vodafone-Panafon, generally known as Vodafone Greece, the country’s largest cellular service provider; Tsalikidis was in charge of network planning at the company. A connection seemed obvious. Given the list of people and their positions at the time of the tapping, we can only imagine the sensitive political and diplomatic discussions, high-stakes business deals, or even marital indiscretions that may have been routinely overheard and, quite possibly, recorded.

[…]

A study of the Athens affair, surely the most bizarre and embarrassing scandal ever to engulf a major cellphone service provider, sheds considerable light on the measures networks can and should take to reduce their vulnerability to hackers and moles.

It’s also a rare opportunity to get a glimpse of one of the most elusive of cybercrimes. Major network penetrations of any kind are exceedingly uncommon. They are hard to pull off, and equally hard to investigate.

See also blog entries by Matt Blaze, Steve Bellovin, and John Markoff; they make some good security points.

EDITED TO ADD (10/22): More info:

The head of Vodafone Greece told the Government that as soon as it discovered the tapping software, it removed it and notified the authorities. However, the shutdown of the equipment prompted strong criticism of Vodafone because it had prevented the authorities from tracing the taps.

Posted on July 10, 2007 at 12:34 PMView Comments

Mobile Phones Disabled When President Bush Visits Sydney

In an effort to prevent terrorism, parts of the mobile phone network will be disabled when President Bush visits Australia. I’ve written about this kind of thing before; it’s a perfect example of security theater: a countermeasure that works if you happen to guess the specific details of the plot correctly, and completely useless otherwise.

On the plus side, it’s only a small area that’s blocked:

It is expected mobile phone calls will drop out in an area the size of a football field as the helicopter passes overhead.

EDITED TO ADD (5/19): Slashdot thread.

EDITED TO ADD (5/20): The Register article.

Posted on May 16, 2007 at 1:55 PMView Comments

Wiretapping in Italy

Encrypted phones are big business in Italy as a defense against wiretapping:

What has spurred encryption sales is not so much the legal wiretapping authorized by Italian magistrates — though information about those calls is also frequently leaked to the press — but the widespread availability of wiretapping technology over the Internet, which has created a growing pool of amateur eavesdroppers. Those snoops have a ready market in the Italian media for filched celebrity conversations.

Posted on May 2, 2007 at 1:02 PMView Comments

Stealing and Reselling Phone Minutes

Interesting new variation of phone fraud:

For the telecoms, the profit is in using VoIP to deliver calls from one phone to another. That requires a “gateway” server to connect a carrier’s phone network to the Net. Phreakers break into these gateways, steal “voice minutes” and sell them to other, usually smaller, telecoms. Many of these firms then sell printed phone cards or operate call centers. “It’s a great racket,” says Justin Newman, CEO of BinFone Telecom of Baltimore, which has been stung by phreakers.

Posted on March 21, 2007 at 11:20 AMView Comments

Screaming Cell Phones

Cell phone security:

Does it pay to scream if your cell phone is stolen? Synchronica, a mobile device management company, thinks so. If you use the company’s Mobile Manager service and your handset is stolen, the company, once contacted, will remotely lockdown your phone, erase all its data and trigger it to emit a blood-curdling scream to scare the bejesus out of the thief.

The general category of this sort of security countermeasure is “benefit denial.” It’s like those dye tags on expensive clothing; if you shoplift the clothing and try to remove the tag, dye spills all over the clothes and makes them unwearable. The effectiveness of this kind of thing relies on the thief knowing that the security measure is there, or is reasonably likely to be there. It’s an effective shoplifting deterrent; my guess is that it will be less effective against cell phone thieves.

Remotely erasing data on stolen cell phones is a good idea regardless, though. And since cell phones are far more often lost than stolen, how about the phone calmly announcing that it is lost and it would like to be returned to its owner?

Posted on September 21, 2006 at 12:12 PMView Comments

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Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.