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Verizon femtocell can be manipulated to monitor cell phone use

Move over, NSA. Keeping tabs on what Verizon users do with their mobile phones has never been simpler, or cheaper, for computer whizzes.

Thanks to a vulnerability, two security experts have found a way to rig the Verizon Wireless Network Extender, also known as a femtocell, to monitor almost exactly how people are using their Verizon mobile phones. A femtocell acts like a mini-cell phone tower and "enhances indoor coverage to provide more reliable service," according to Verizon. It is lightweight and about the size of a cable modem.

Researchers Tom Ritter and Doug DePerry, senior consultants at New York-based security assessment firm iSEC Partners, gave Reuters a demonstration on how problematic it can be if users' phones, unbeknownst to them, happened to attach to the exploited femtocells. When a mobile phone is within range of the femtocell it will connect to it, oftentimes without the user even realizing it.

What could happen next is less than desirable. Imagine walking in New York through Times Square, attaching to a malicious femtocell and having a hacker record and rip off your phone's personal data, including calls, texts and photos.

“Frankly, these devices scare us,” said Ritter. “I mean, this is really about, you know, not the NSA tapping ordinary people, but it's about ordinary people attacking ordinary people.”

For safety reasons, Ritter and DePerry wouldn't specifically describe the vulnerabilities involved or how the exploit works, but Verizon has fixed the flaws that would have permitted the attack. The pair is expected to provide more information in a couple of weeks at the Black Hat and DefCon hacker shows in Las Vegas.

Ritter, who could not be reached for comment by SCMagazine.com on Monday, told Reuters that dedicated and motivated hackers will always find workarounds and it may only be a matter of time before these roughly $250 femtocells – $150 used – become ticking time bombs for data absorption. Ritter added that other carriers are at risk too.

“The level of technical skill that you need to break into one of these, people are teaching in college,” Ritter said.

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