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10.7 Intercepting Voice Communications

While this chapter has focused primarily on Internet-based risks, we would be remiss if we did not discuss at least one additional risk given a recent particularly noteworthy and sophisticated attack against a foreign nation's communication infrastructure. Labeled the Athens Affair by authors Vassilis Prevelakis and Diomidis Spinellis [320], this well-coordinated attack highlighted the increased role that common technologies play in all forms of our daily communications. In their paper, the authors retrace the alarming events related to the interception of cell phone communications from high-ranking Greek government officials:

  • On 9 March 2005, a 38-year-old Greek electrical engineer named Costas Tsalikidis was found hanged in his Athens loft apartment, an apparent suicide. It would prove to be merely the first public news of a scandal that would roil Greece for months.
  • The next day, the prime minister of Greece was told that his cell phone was being bugged, as were those of the mayor of Athens and at least 100 other high-ranking dignitaries, including an employee of the U.S. embassy.
  • The victims were customers of Athens-based Vodafone-Panafon, generally known as Vodafone Greece, the country's largest cellular service provider; Tsalikidis was in charge of network planning at the company. A connection seemed obvious. Given the list of people and their positions at the time of the tapping, we can only imagine the sensitive political and diplomatic discussions, high-stakes business deals, or even marital indiscretions that may have been routinely overheard and, quite possibly, recorded.
  • Even before Tsalikidis's death, investigators had found rogue software installed on the Vodafone Greece phone network by parties unknown. Some extraordinarily knowledgeable people either penetrated the network from outside or subverted it from within, aided by an agent or mole. In either case, the software at the heart of the phone system, investigators later discovered, was reprogrammed with a finesse and sophistication rarely seen before or since.

In this attack, perpetrators used rootkit techniques, like those discussed in Chapter 8, on the cellular provider's phone switch to remain hidden. Over the past two decades, the basic communications systems that we rely on for both our traditional land-line telephones and our cellular phone communications have increasingly moved to commodity-based hardware and software [108]. In the past, would-be attackers were forced to learn complex and proprietary embedded systems, making the introduction of malicious code on these systems difficult, if not impossible. Today's commoditization simplifies this effort, as witnessed by the attack discussed here, and greatly increases the likelihood that an attacker might gain a similar foothold on communications systems in the future.

Central switching networks are not the only target. Mobile devices themselves remain even more likely candidates for interception of communications. Today's mobile devices, an increasing number of which can be considered smartphones, provide ripe opportunities for the introduction of malicious code. While traditional threats such as viruses, worms, and trojans have yet to gain widespread prominence on mobile devices (although they do exist), the potential for targeted customized mobile threats has existed for some time.

One particular application, known as FlexiSpy and sold by Bangkok, Thailand–based software vendor Vervata, allows listening to a remote phone's surrounding while it is not in use (Figure 10.8). It also allows retrieval of the phone's personal data and monitoring of all email and SMS messages sent by the phone. The software itself is available in "Pro," "Light," "Alert," and "Bug" versions. The vendor prides itself on its software's ability to remain hidden and unnoticeable on an infected device.

Figure 10.8

Figure 10.8 FlexiSpy, developed and sold by Bangkok, Thailand's Vervata, allows for monitoring and tapping of cell phone communications. It is supported on Windows Mobile, Symbian OS, and Blackberry devices. Today installation requires physical access to the device. Much like desktop operating systems, however, future versions might be installed through software vulnerabilities or messaging applications.

The infection of a candidate, campaign staff, or candidate's family's cell phone with such a freely available application could have dire consequences. All back-room and hallway conversations engaged in by the candidate could be monitored at all times and intercepted by the attacker. Worse, opinions—perhaps including those not shared with the public or outsiders—could be recorded and made available for later playback, introducing the potential for widespread exposure and damage.

We have already seen examples of unexpected recordings accidentally made public for other political figures, including those involving California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2006 and 2007 [308]. In that case, the recordings were unintentionally exposed through the governor's web site and resulted in criticism of a number of his comments that were made without the intent of them becoming public.

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