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New Hack Turns Smartphones Into Covert Spying System

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Your phone is a covert spy device, secretly listening to and recording everything you say -- or at least, it could be, according to new research that has uncovered a smartphone hack affecting both Androids and iPhones.

The auto-answer feature installed on most smartphones can be hacked to transform the phone into a listening machine, based on research by Ralf-Philipp Weinmann that shows a way hackers can break into the phone's baseband processor--which sends and receives radio signals on the cellular network--by exploiting bugs in the firmware of its radio chips.

"I will demo how to use the auto-answer feature present in most phones to turn the telephone into a remote listening device," Weinmann told InfoWorld in an e-mail.

Though previous cell phone security concerns have focused on the operating systems, Weinmann's research represents a new kind of hack--baseband hacking, an approach that requires some complicated set-up to function.

The would-be hacker creates a fake cell phone tower to get the targeted phone to connect with it, at which point the fake tower would be able to transmit the bad code. Moreover, that code must be capable of running on the firmware, representing another level of hacker know-how necessary to run the trick.

A new open source software called OpenBTS allows pretty much anybody to set up a cellular network radio tower. Back in the day, it would take tens of thousands of dollars to accomplish the same feat, making this sort of hacking basically impossible for the average hacker. This kind of hacking is also illegal, as intercepting phone calls over licensed frequencies is against federal law.

Weinmann will unveil his hack at next month's Black Hat information security conference in Washington DC. His title for the presentation? "The Baseband Apocalypse."

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