5G, 4G Networks Have Flaws That Allow Location Tracking, Phone Snooping: Report

A new research paper outlines security flaws in 4G and 5G networks that allow hackers to eavesdrop on phone calls and track users’ locations using their smartphones. According to one of the co-authors Syed Rafiul Hussain, the attack can be carried out by anyone who is well versed with cellular paging protocols. Researchers claim that these new attacks can even defeat newer protections that have been put into place claiming ‘better security’. The attacks affect major US carriers, and Europe and Asia carriers are also vulnerable.

Co-authors of this new research paper are Ninghui Li, Syed Rafiul Hussain, and Elisa Bertino from Purdue University, and Mitziu Echeverria and Omar Chowdhury from University of Iowa. The report was obtained by TechCrunch, and the team will present it at the Network and Distributed System Security Symposium in San Diego today.

The researchers suggest that three flaws have been discovered in 4G and 5G networks, and they can intercept calls, and even track location of cell phones. The three flaws are called Torpedo, Piercer, and IMSI-Cracking attack. Hussain claims that four major networks – AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile – are affected by Torpedo, and one US network was also vulnerable to Piercer attack. He claims that networks in Europe and Asia are also vulnerable. He also explains that these attacks can be carried with radio equipment worth only $200.

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According to the report, “Torpedo exploits weakness in the paging protocol that carriers use to notify a phone before a call or text message comes through. The researchers found that several phone calls placed and cancelled in a short period can trigger a paging message without alerting the target device to an incoming call, which an attacker can use to track a victim’s location. Knowing the victim’s paging occasion also lets an attacker hijack the paging channel and inject or deny paging messages, by spoofing messages like Amber alerts or blocking messages altogether.”

Torpedo flaw opens up the window for the other two attacks. Piercer allows the hacker to know an international mobile subscriber identity (IMSI) on the 4G network; and the IMSI-Cracking attack decrypts the IMSI number in both 4G and 5G networks. These flaws put phones at risk from stingrays – a term used by law enforcement to identify real-time location and intercept phone calls and texts as well.


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