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Spying scandal in Germany

10 November 2011

Chaos Computer Club (CCC), a Germany-based hacker group, published a proof of the use of spyware by the government, which resulted in a serious scandal on the highest level.

The spyware mentioned in the publication was found on a laptop that belonged to a person who was suspected of illegal export of pharmaceuticals. The program was allegedly installed during a customs inspection at an airport.

This program captures the URL’s of visited websites and email communications and then sends the collected data to a remote server, presumably outside the country. Besides, it allows the operator to upload and launch any applications on a remote computer.

Joachim Hermann, the Minister of Interior of Bavaria, confirmed that state authorities in this land had been using spyware since 2009, but refused to provide specific examples. In his opinion, this practice in not in breach of any laws, although this issue is subject to further discussion. Authorities from three other lands (Baden-Württemberg, Brandenburg and Niedersachsen) also confirmed that they had been using similar software.

In response to the furious public reaction, some high-profile authorities were forced to provide comments on the situation.

Germany’s Minister of Justice, Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, and Chancellor Angela Merkel demanded that a thorough investigation of the incident be conducted. The result of this investigation should be a mechanism aimed at protecting the citizens’ rights to privacy.

Therefore, Germany’s laws related to the use of spyware may change considerably in the nearest future.

GPRS: channel hacked

10 November 2011

Karsten Nohl, a German network security and cryptography expert, announced the discovery of a relatively simple technique of intercepting and decrypting data transmitted over the GPRS protocol.
His team also discovered that many mobile carriers use a low-security variant of GPRS, while some of them disable GPRS traffic encryption altogether.
There can be two reasons behind such ignorant attitude of mobile carriers to the security of their clients’ data:

  • An attempt to save on equipment required for proper data protection.
  • Deliberate disablement of data encryption for retaining access to clients’ data.

Karsten Nohl claims that his discovery is far from being theoretical: his team was able to capture and decrypt data in T-Mobile, O2 Germany, Vodafone and E-Plus networks. What made matters worse was that they did not have to use cumbersome equipment (they used a reflashed Motorola C-123 phone) or expensive software (they only used publicly available freeware). Even in this case, they managed to capture data in the radius of 5 km.
The details of this technique have not been published yet to avoid damage to the clients of cell phone companies. The research group believes that it’s high time that mobile operators did their homework and configured their GPRS gateways and checked all cryptographic systems, as the methodology they followed will be made public shortly.
However, Russian operators were quick to react: according to “The Big Three” (Beeline, Megafon, MTS), they don’t see how this could jeopardize their clients’ security and suggest using better-protected technologies, such as 3G.

Undocumented mobile phone features

25 February 2011

There have long been rumours that the GSM mobile phone standard (or even the devices themselves) contains undocumented features. However, up to now such technology had never been used in any country in the world by special services for collecting information.

This makes perfect sense. The technology would become useless if criminals knew about it.

However, it had to happen one day. At the beginning of this year, the first court case was held where location data obtained using undocumented GPS enabled mobile phone features was used as evidence. A secret request was sent via the mobile phone operator to the telephones, which then sent their location coordinates to the operator. Rumours of this capability can be considered to be confirmed.

As could be expected, this secret technology was not used against minor fraudsters, copyright violators or paedophiles but against a serious national security threat.

At the beginning of the year, in the Netherlands, 12 Somali illegal immigrants were arrested in seven different locations in this way. Four of them were planning a terrorist attack in the country. Access to the private data of the accused was authorised by a court order.

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Germany: National Cyber Defence Centre

25 February 2011

According to Germany’s Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere, in the first half of this year a new department for protecting internet resources, The National Cyber Defence Centre will be created.

This centre will be run by the Department for IT Security (BSI), which already carries out similar functions.

This project was first discussed in the summer of 2010, when the Stuxnet virus was discovered. The virus’s attack on Iran did not affect Germany, but this was enough for the authorities to realise that the country’s infrastructure was not prepared for such a threat.

It is proposed that the National Cyber Defence Centre will be invested with authority by the intelligence agencies and the police, which will give it the greatest ability to combat hacker attacks. By the way, such power has already caused a large number of political arguments. For example, the Free Democratic Party of Germany argues that the creation of a body with such a range of powers is contrary to the law.