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Project developers say the point of their work is to show how easy it really would be to crack A/51 -- something they say that grey market commercial products are already doing. According to Stevenson many of these security problems are solved in next-generation mobile network technologies such as 3G and LTE (Long Term Evolution).
However, even 3G phones can be compromised because they can roll back to GSM mode when a 3G network is not available. "You can choose to operate in 3G mode only, but then you will have very limited coverage," Stevenson said. "GSM has become the Achilles Heel of 3G security."
Meanwhile, another Black Hat presenter, Chris Paget plans to demonstrate a completely different way to intercept GSM calls. He's setting up a fake cellular tower that masquerades as a legitimate GSM network.
According to Paget, using open-source tools and a US$1,500 USRP radio, he can assemble his fake tower, called an IMSI (International Mobile Subscriber Identity) catcher. In a controlled experiment, he's going to set one up at Black Hat and invite audience members to connect their mobile phones. Once a phone has connected, Paget's tower tells it to drop encryption, giving him a way of listening in on calls.
"I think there's been too much focus on the cryptographic weaknesses in GSM," he said. "People need to recognize that the cryptographic weaknesses are not the worst weaknesses in GSM. "