The hacks behind UK phone scandal were easy as 1, 2, 3, 4

Voice mail hacks that threaten British government and media establishment could have been avoided with some simple precautions

The technology behind the scandal that brought down London’s News of the World tabloid is actually nothing new in hacking circles. Parts of the cell-phone network are notoriously easy to crack, and the reporters at that now-defunct newspaper were simply following techniques, or paying someone else to do it, that were invented years ago.

Even so, there are a few basic things you can do right now to make your phone more secure.

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The truth is that the wireless signals coming from cell phones these days are pretty secure. Because of the way most cell phones broadcast their signals to towers, digitally and in pieces to be re-assembled later, they are practically encrypted already. The days of someone with a powerful radio driving around listening to calls are almost over, though this is still the case with a lot of portable phones, like the kind that simply transmit their signal to the base station in your home. I once rode along with a shady character who liked to listen in to the conversations taking place at college dormitories using that method, so be careful what you say on those cordless phones.

Anyway, back to the scandal at hand. The fallout has led to calls from people like General James E. Cartwright for greater cell phone security in the United States. While we applaud the general for going on the record with his concern, the truth is that there are a couple basic things most people can do to make their phones more secure right now.

The journalists at News of the World were not tapping into live calls. They were breaking into voice mail. At one extreme, they were simply keying in the default passwords issued with phones. You can get a list of them from most hacker websites. When I got my new cell phone, the default password on the voice mail was 1234 for example. You would be surprised how many people don’t change this. When using your own phone to call your voice mail, most people don’t have to enter the password because it sees that it’s your phone and lets you pass. But if you are calling in remotely, you have to enter your phone number and password. That’s how the so-called journalists got into the voice mail of celebrities and government officials alike.

In this way, many types of devices are unsafe because their default passwords are either widely known or listed publicly. Most Cisco wireless access points, for example, used to ship with "tsunami" as the default password. If you don’t change it, almost anyone can use your wireless signal. And many office PBX voicemail systems give everyone a password of 0000 until they change it, if they change it. To protect yourself from this base-level hacking, simply change your default password. But it won’t make you bulletproof.

Most voice-mail systems do not have lockout functions, though many will cut a call off after three tries. Even so, hackers can always call back. So someone really determined to get in could simply guess 0000 followed by 0001 followed by 0002 until they got it right. And there are programs to make this process go more quickly.

You might want to make a note to change your voice-mail password every month, say on the 25th or some relevant date. At the very least, it will force a hacker to go through the entire process again. And if allegations are true that the News of the World journalists bribed cell phone workers for passwords, it would mean that the info they got would only be good for a limited time. They would have to re-bribe that person again once you changed your password.

Now, even though it’s rare, intercepting voice to voice phone calls is still possible. In the September issue, the lab plans to test an app from Cellcrypt that claims to be able to encrypt calls between two smart phones regardless of the type of phone or the networks involved. Both phones simply need to have the app installed. We’ll let you know how that turns out, but in the meantime, change your voice-mail passwords, because one, two, three, four might make a catchy song title, but it isn’t secure at all.

About the Author

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.


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