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Vulnerabilities in the 3G standard

31 October 2012

Security experts from the University of Birmingham and the Technical University of Berlin have discovered a number of vulnerabilities in the 3G mobile telecommunications technology and managed to exploit them under near-life conditions – they were able to locate a specific phone and capture its exact coordinates.

In the 3G communications standard, the international mobile subscriber identity (IMSI) is not used for security reasons and is replaced with the varying temporary mobile subscriber identity (TMSI).

The scientists used a femtocell (a compact portable cellular base station, a fairly simple device) to find two ways of obtaining the IMSI of a specific device and intercepting its coordinates.

In the first case, they managed to intercept the communications between a device and a base station when they exchanged a pair of IMSI/TMSI values.
In the second case, they managed to intercept the transmission of authentication parameters and a secret session key. After that, they forwarded the signal to all devices in range, including the one being attacked. The synchronization error signal revealed the necessary device.

With this information at hand, one can intercept the exact location of the necessary person even without involving the mobile carrier’s infrastructure. This operation requires fairly simple and widely available equipment, so practical skills and knowledge of standard 3G protocols are the only limiting factors in preparation for such attacks, and obtaining them is essentially just a matter of time.

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