A group of security-conscious Americans have revealed a nationwide network of “fake” cell phone towers of unknown origin which can intercept calls, texts, and even remotely control unprotected phones.
When interviewed by The Popular Science Monthly Les Goldsmith, the CEO of ESD America and manufacturer of hi-spec encrypted smartphones aimed at businessmen who regularly visit cyber-crime hotspots Russia and China, revealed some surprising findings reported by his customers. It appears a network of interceptor stations exist across America.
The custom Operating System (OS) of the company’s phones eliminates hundreds of security flaws in the ‘standard’ Android OS, and automatically warns users when their phones are targeted by ‘rogue’ base stations. By collating reports from secure phone users, at least seventeen of these mystery towers were identified in the United States, spread fairly evenly across the country.
Speaking to Popular Science he said: “One of our customers took a road trip from Florida to North Carolina and he found 8 different interceptors on that trip. We even found one at South Point Casino in Las Vegas”.
Because these interceptors are not officially registered or named in the way an ordinary mobile tower would be, the ownership and intent of the devices is unclear, however their locations provide clues. Goldsmith reports many of them are ‘on top of’ military bases, leading to speculation the American government is hoovering up mobile radio traffic of those in and near bases. Another plausible agent is a foreign power like cyber-warfare specialist China is conducting espionage on a massive scale.
The prohibitive cost of equipment capable of this sort of activity indicates their operation is more likely to be undertaken by governments than citizen hacktivists. By forcing mobile phones that come within range to switch invisibly to older network protocols (2G rather than the latest 4G) which have weaker encryption, the base stations can intercept calls, text messages and even control phones remotely. Phones can be forced to install spyware, leaving them vulnerable even once they have left the area affected.
As Popular Science reports the secure phones cost around $3,500 meaning only wealthy security conscious individuals will be able to afford them. As Edward Snowden revealed in May, the NSA can ‘listen in’ on conversations even when mobiles are turned off by using these towers. At the moment the only fool-proof option left for the cost-conscious individual seeking to avoid Chinese eavesdroppers is taking the battery out.