Software detects fake mobile, Wi-Fi networks

CoroNet aims to address growing concerns around mobile phone spying

An Israeli company has developed a product it says can detect if a mobile device connects to a fake cellular base station or Wi-Fi access point, potentially protecting critical data from falling into the hands of hackers.

Two large European carriers are testing the product, which is expected to come to market in early 2016, said Dror Liwer, chief security officer and co-founder of CoroNet, based in Be'er Sheva, Israel.

CoroNet's software addresses one type of attack that was long thought to be too expensive to conduct. It involves creating a fake base station that has a stronger signal than a real one. Mobile devices are designed to connect to the station with the strongest signal.

Once a device has connected, it's possible for a hacker to figure out a person's approximate location and possibly steal data or listen to calls.

Such attacks were thought to be only possible by governments and intelligence agencies, but the software needed to create a base station, OpenBTS, is open source, and the cost of the needed hardware has dropped dramatically, Liwer said.

In the U.S., there has been increasing concern over police departments using such devices, sometimes referred to as IMSI (International Mobile Subscriber Identity) catchers, without court approval.

A technically skilled person could probably build a fake cellular tower for around $350, while a non-technical person could assemble one for around $1,500, Liwer said. For enterprises with sensitive data, the lower barrier to intercepting mobile communications poses yet another risk to data.

CoroNet's software is a lightweight agent that runs on an Android or iOS device or on a laptop. It is programmed to detect behaviors and characteristics of a base station, as well as those of Wi-Fi networks.

It turns out that fake ones leave a lot of clues that they're probably bogus. Liwer said there are many signs, but was only willing to discuss a couple that CoroNet analyzes.

A fake base station will deauthorize a device from a legitimate network and then try to overpower it with its own signal to appear more attractive, which is a red flag, he said. CoroNet can also detect the "imprint" of an attacker, based on the pattern of radio waves in a certain location.

"Based on that pattern, we know that is probably suspicious behavior," Liwer said. "A safe network would never behave this way."

If a mobile network looks suspicious, CoroNet can cut off the connection to the fake base station and route the call to the legitimate one.

With Wi-Fi, if CoroNet detects a so-called evil twin network -- one that has the same SSID name as the legitimate one -- it can forbid a phone from connecting to it.

There are other projects and products designed to address this problem. SnoopSnitch is an Android app that also analyzes mobile networks to try to detect fake ones.

Companies including Boeing and Lockheed also sell special mobile phones with secure microchips that have an approved list of mobile networks that a device is allowed to connect to.

CoroNet doesn't plan to sell directly to consumers but rather through mobile carrier partners and managed security service providers, Liwer said. It will likely be priced per user per month, he said. There will be two plans: a basic one that covers data and an executive one that handles data and voice.

Send news tips and comments to jeremy_kirk@idg.com. Follow me on Twitter: @jeremy_kirk

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