Impersonate The President With Consumer-Grade SDR

In April of 2018, the Federal Emergency Management Agency sent out the very first “Presidential Alert”, a new class of emergency notification that could be pushed out in addition to the weather and missing child messages that most users were already familiar with. But while those other messages are localized in nature, Presidential Alerts are intended as a way for the Government to reach essentially every mobile phone in the country. But what if the next Presidential Alert that pops up on your phone was actually sent from somebody with a Software Defined Radio?

According to research recently released by a team from the University of Colorado Boulder, it’s not as far-fetched a scenario as you might think. In fact, given what they found about how the Commercial Mobile Alert Service (CMAS) works, there might not be a whole lot we can even do to prevent it. The system was designed to push out these messages in the most expedient and reliable way possible, which meant that niceties like authentication had to take a backseat.

The thirteen page report, which was presented at MobiSys 2019 in Seoul, details their findings on CMAS as well as their successful efforts to send spoofed Presidential Alerts to phones of various makes and models. The team used a BladeRF 2.0 and USRP B210 to perform their mock attacks, and even a commercially available LTE femtocell with modified software. Everything was performed within a Faraday cage to prevent fake messages from reaching the outside world.

So how does the attack work? To make a long story short, the team found that phones will accept CMAS messages even if they are not currently authenticated with a cell tower. So the first phase of the attack is to spoof a cell tower that provides a stronger signal than the real ones in the area; not very difficult in an enclosed space. When the phone sees the stronger “tower” it will attempt, but ultimately fail, to authenticate with it. After a few retries, it will give up and switch to a valid tower.

This negotiation takes around 45 seconds to complete, which gives the attacker a window of opportunity to send the fake alerts. The team says one CMAS message can be sent every 160 milliseconds, so there’s plenty of time to flood the victim’s phone with hundreds of unblockable phony messages.

The attack is possible because the system was intentionally designed to maximize the likelihood that users would receive the message. Rather than risk users missing a Presidential Alert because their phones were negotiating between different towers at the time, the decision was made to just push them through regardless. The paper concludes that one of the best ways to mitigate this attack would be to implement some kind of digital signature check in the phone’s operating system before the message gets displayed to the user. The phone might not be able to refuse the message itself, but it can at least ascertain it’s authentic before showing it to the user.

All of the team’s findings have been passed on to the appropriate Government agencies and manufacturers, but it will likely be some time before we find out what (if any) changes come from this research. Considering the cost of equipment that can spoof cell networks has dropped like a rock over the last few years, we’re hoping all the players can agree on a software fix before we start drowning in Presidential Spam.

Hackaday Prize Entry: A Femtocell Repeater

For a Hackaday Prize entry, [TegwynTwmffat] is building a cell phone signal repeater. This sort of device is commercially available, but the options are either expensive or, as with some units available for $30 on DealExtreme, obviously noncompliant with RF regulations. This project intends to create a cost-effective, hackable device that works properly and conforms to the right regulations.

The core of this system is a LimeSDR transceiver. This is a board we’ve seen before, and it has a few interesting features. Basically, the core of the LimeSDR is a programmable RF transceiver with coverage from 100kHz to 3.8GHz. There’s also on-chip signal processing and USB 3.0 bandwidth to get the signals to and from a computer.

Right now, [TegwynTwmffat]’s focus is getting his LimeSDR up and working and figuring out how to set up a few radio blocks to do what is needed. There’s a great update to the project that showcases Pothos, and so far [Tegwyn] has a full-duplex repeater working. This is great work, and really showcases the capabilities of what software-defined radio can do.

Poking At The Femtocell Hardware In An AT&T Microcell

Here’s a picture of the internals of an AT&T Microcell. This hardware extends the cellular network by acting as its own cell tower and connecting to the network via a broadband connection. So if you don’t get service in your home, you can get one of these and hook it up to your cable modem or DSL and poof, you’re cellphone works again. [C1de0x] decided to crack one open and see what secrets it holds.

On the board there are two System-0n-Chips, an FPGA, the radio chip, and a GPS module. There is some tamper detection circuitry which [C1de0x] got around, but he’s saving that info for a future post. In poking and prodding at the hardware he found the UART connections which let him tap into each of the SoCs which dump data as they boot. It’s running a Linux kernel with BusyBox and there are SSH and ROOT accounts which share the same password. About five days of automated cracking and the password was discovered.

But things really start to get interesting when he stumbles upon something he calls the “wizard”. It’s a backdoor which allow full access to the device. Now it looks like the developers must have missed something, because this is just sitting out there on the WAN waiting for someone to monkey with it. Responses are sent to a hard-coded IP address, but a bit of work with the iptables will fix that. Wondering what kind of mischief can be caused by this security flaw? Take a look at the Vodafone femtocell hacking to find out.

Vodafone Femtocells Hacked, Root Password Revealed


As phone systems have evolved over time, the desire to break them and exploit their usage continues to flourish. Just recently, [The Hacker’s Choice (THC)] announced that they had accessed secure data from Vodafone’s mobile phone network last year, via their femtocell product.

The purpose of the femtocell is to extend mobiile network coverage to locations where reception might not be ideal, routing calls to Vodafone’s network via IPSec tunnels. [THC] knew that this meant the femtocells required a high-level of interaction with the carrier’s traditional mobile network, so they started poking around to see what could be exploited.

After gaining administrative access to the femtocell itself using the root password “newsys”, they found that they were able to allow unauthorized users to utilize the service – a simple ToS violation. However, they also had the ability to force any nearby Vodafone subscriber’s phone to use their femtocell. This enabled them to request secret keys from Vodafone, which they could then use to spoof calls and SMS messages from the victim’s phone without their knowledge.

They have been kind enough to release all of the pertinent information about the hack on their wiki for any interested parties to peruse. Now we’re just wondering how long it takes before stateside carriers’ femtocells are exploited in the same fashion.

[Thanks, kresp0]