NDP MP Matthew Dubé looks at a map showing that hackers tracked his movements through his cellphone for days.
One marker shows Dubé near Parliament Hill. Another marks the place he lives when he’s working in Ottawa. One more shows an early morning trip to the airport to pick up his partner from a business trip.
“That’s creepy. That doesn’t make you feel very comfortable,” said the Quebec MP.
He looks down at the laptop showing the map again and laughs nervously.
“I guess it’s not something to joke about but I guess you think: ‘Good thing I wasn’t doing anything inappropriate.’ “
It wasn’t just his movements. Hackers were able to record Dubé’s calls, too.
It was all part of a CBC/Radio-Canada demonstration of just how vulnerable Canada’s phone networks are. With Dubé’s consent and the help of cybersecurity experts based in Germany, CBC/Radio-Canada learned that Canada’s two largest cellphone networks are vulnerable to attack.
How can hackers access your phone?
This is all possible because of vulnerability in the international telecommunication network. It involves what’s known as Signalling System No. 7— or SS7.
SS7 is the way cellphone networks around the world communicate with one another. It’s a hidden layer of messages about setting up and tearing down connections for a phone call, exchanging billing information or allowing a phone to roam. But hackers can gain access to SS7, too.
“Those commands can be sent by anybody,” said Karsten Nohl, a Berlin-based cybersecurity expert whose team helped CBC/Radio-Canada hack into Dubé’s phone.
That can go beyond spying on phone conversations or geolocating a phone. SS7 attacks can also be used to alter, add or delete content.
For example, Nohl said he could set up a person’s cellphone voicemail so all messages went directly to him. The user might never know the messages were missing.
“The technology is built with good intentions to make a very useful phone network and good user experience but it lacks any kind of security and it’s open to abuse.”.
It’s not just Nohl sounding the alarm. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security put out a report in April warning that “significant weaknesses in SS7 have been known for more than a decade.”
The report notes that potential abuses of SS7 include eavesdropping, tracking and fraud, with “tens of thousands of entry points worldwide, many of which are controlled by countries or organizations that support terrorism or espionage.”
SS7 attacks can easily go completely undetected. However, German journalists reported on an incident in 2014 where customers of Telefonica bank had untold amounts of money drained from their accounts because of phishing emails and SS7 attacks.
In that case, the bank used four-digit codes sent to customers’ phones in order to complete money transfers. Hackers used SS7 to get those codes and take the funds for themselves.
The sheer number of SS7 attacks becomes clear when networks beef up their security, said Nohl.
“When they start blocking this abuse, they’re blocking millions of otherwise abusive messages.That’s for a single network in a single country. So you can imagine the magnitude of abuse worldwide.”
Hacking a Canadian phone
Nohl said some telecom companies, primarily in Europe, have beefed up their defences to ward off SS7 attacks.
CBC/Radio-Canada wanted to know just how well Canadian cellphone networks would fare and asked Dubé to be part of a demonstration.
Dubé, the vice-chair of the House of Commons standing committee on public safety and national security, went to the mall and picked up a new phone for the experiment. CBC/Radio-Canada agreed not to use his current work phone in order to protect the privacy of those phone calls.
Dubé’s new phone number was given to Nohl and his team of hackers in Berlin. It didn’t take long for them to access his calls.
First, the hackers were able to record a conversation between Dubé in his office on Parliament Hill and our Radio-Canada colleague Brigitte Bureau, who was sitting at a café in Berlin.
Next, it was a conversation between Dubé and his assistant, who were both in Ottawa.
Nohl’s team also tracked the geolocation data from the phone, painting a picture of Dube’s whereabouts.
When the CBC/Radio-Canada team was back in Canada, the calls were played for Dubé and he was shown a map of his movements.
“It’s exactly what I did that day. Just phone calls are bad enough. When you start knowing where you are, that’s pretty scary stuff,” said Dubé.
Dubé’s phone was on the Rogers Network, but CBC/Radio-Canada also ran a similar test with phones on the Bell network.
‘Easy to hack’
Nohl offered his assessment of the results.
“Relative to other networks in Europe and elsewhere in the world, the Canadian networks are easy to hack.”
He believes there’s much more that Rogers and Bell could be doing.
“I think the two Canadian networks we tested have about 10 per cent of the security that they need to do to protect from SS7 attacks.”
It’s a source of concern for Pierre Roberge, too. He spent more than 10 years with for Canada’s Communications Security Establishment — the electronic spy agency charged with protecting Canadian digital security. He’s now the CEO of Arcadia Cyber Defence.
The CBC/Radio-Canada demonstration raises questions about personal security, he said, and also about who else might want to spy on sensitive discussions.
“To know other nations or criminal groups can eavesdrop on Canadian communication is really worrisome, especially at the political level.”
Companies say security a priority
Bell, Rogers and the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association declined to sit down with CBC/Radio-Canada and speak about the test results.
Via email, CBC/Radio-Canada sent a series of questions about what the networks were doing to prevent SS7 attacks and why customers weren’t being told conversations could be compromised. Both networks responded with general statements about their security efforts.
Rogers Communications said security is a top priority and that it has a cybersecurity team monitoring threats and is introducing new measure to protect customers.
“On SS7, we have already introduced and continue to implement the most advanced technologies but we are unable to share specific details for security reasons.”
Bell sent a two-line response.
“Bell works with international industry groups such as the GSMA [an international mobile phone operators association] to identify and address emerging security risks, including those relating to SS7.”
A spokesperson added that Bell is “an active participant” in the Canadian Security Telecommunications Advisory Committee.
The group that represents Canadian telecoms was also fairly tight-lipped. The Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association said it works with domestic and international bodies on security standards. It also said it works with law enforcement to “actively monitor and address risks.”
CBC/Radio-Canada also reached out to Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale’s office to ask what was being done to protect Canadians and was directed to the Communication Security Establishment.
In a statement, CSE said its role is to provide “advice and guidance to help protect systems of importance to the Government of Canada.”
“CSE has been actively working with Canada’s telecom industry and critical infrastructure operators to address issues related to SS7 to develop best practices, advice and guidance that can help mitigate the risks associated with SS7.”
How to protect yourself
There are ways to minimize the chance someone will spy on your communications, said Nohl.
He recommends encryption software.
“If you’re using Signal, WhatsApp, Skype, you’re certainly protected from SS7 attacks…. But there’s other types of attacks that could happen against you, your computer, your phone. So you’re never fully safe.”
When it comes to having your movements tracked, Nohl said the only protection is to turn your phone off — something that’s not always practical.
“We’re so dependent on our phones.The networks should protect us from these attacks rather than us having to forgo all the benefits of carrying a phone.”
Dubé said that dependency is what makes this most troubling.
“The scariest thing of all is that I know that tonight or tomorrow morning, when I make calls to friends to go out for a drink or when I make calls to colleagues to resolve a political or professional issue — I’m still going to have to use the phone.”