Feeds

$25 toy radio used to knock out feds

Thousand dollar radio can track them too

High performance access to file storage

Researchers looking at the security of the US Project 25 radio network, used by federal agents and local police, have discovered that it's easily jammed, and almost as easily compromised.

During a two-year study, the researchers from the University of Pennsylvania found that encryption on the police network was routinely switched off, but also demonstrated how a $25 toy could be reprogrammed to knock out radio transmissions – even being able to exclude specific users or subnets – and how a more-expensive option could track a specific user.

Pink, toy, radio

The GirlTECH IMme: Giving girls access to technology was always going to be dangerous

Project 25 is the US equivalent to TETRA, a standard radio platform for local and federal police to communicate in groups during operations. But unlike TETRA, which is deployed in green-field radio spectrum, P25 had to be compatible with the existing analogue systems and is thus squeezed into a fixed 12.5kHz channel, though that's not the only thing making it vulnerable.

The digital system uses fixed-length packets, optionally encrypted using a symmetric key (distributed to handsets manually or over the air). The first problem is that key distribution doesn't always work, so the team found users frequently get cut out and have to ask the rest of the group to switch off encryption for the duration of the operation. Individual users can also, inadvertently, switch off their own encryption without other users being alert enough to notice.

But even when encryption is being used properly, the packet header is sent in the clear, allowing a well-timed jammer to knock out the encryption keys (thus forcing a team to switch off encryption), or knock out transmissions from a specific user. Worse still, a corrupted message addressed to a user prompts their radio to respond with a resent request, allowing an attacker to triangulate the attacked user's location.

The ease with which the radios can be knocked out is alarming, though the researchers did have to spend some months (two years in total) monitoring sections of the 2000 frequencies available to the police to identify bands where interesting conversations were taking place. Having done that, they were able to hear names and locations of criminals under investigation, details of surveillance operations, and plans for forthcoming arrests.

Fortunately, and despite media portrayals, few criminal organisations are quite organised enough to create such an information brokerage.

The researchers' paper (16-page PDF/9.2MB, nicely written but complicated) does have practical advice for users of P25 – reprogramming handsets to make switching off encryption less obvious, and reminding users when it has been switched off – but they conclude that fundamentally the P25 system wasn't designed with a properly layered security model, and that this will always leave it more vulnerable than it should be. ®

High performance access to file storage

More from The Register

next story
Android engineer: We DIDN'T copy Apple OR follow Samsung's orders
Veep testifies for Samsung during Apple patent trial
Did a date calculation bug just cost hard-up Co-op Bank £110m?
And just when Brit banking org needs £400m to stay afloat
One year on: diplomatic fail as Chinese APT gangs get back to work
Mandiant says past 12 months shows Beijing won't call off its hackers
MtGox chief Karpelès refuses to come to US for g-men's grilling
Bitcoin baron says he needs another lawyer for FinCEN chat
EFF: Feds plan to put 52 MILLION FACES into recognition database
System would identify faces as part of biometrics collection
Big Content goes after Kim Dotcom
Six studios sling sueballs at dead download destination
Alphadex fires back at British Gas with overcharging allegation
Brit colo outfit says it paid for 347KVA, has been charged for 1940KVA
Jack the RIPA: Blighty cops ignore law, retain innocents' comms data
Prime minister: Nothing to see here, go about your business
Singapore decides 'three strikes' laws are too intrusive
When even a prurient island nation thinks an idea is dodgy it has problems
Banks slap Olympus with £160 MEEELLION lawsuit
Scandal hit camera maker just can't shake off its past
prev story

Whitepapers

Mainstay ROI - Does application security pay?
In this whitepaper learn how you and your enterprise might benefit from better software security.
Five 3D headsets to be won!
We were so impressed by the Durovis Dive headset we’ve asked the company to give some away to Reg readers.
3 Big data security analytics techniques
Applying these Big Data security analytics techniques can help you make your business safer by detecting attacks early, before significant damage is done.
The benefits of software based PBX
Why you should break free from your proprietary PBX and how to leverage your existing server hardware.
Mobile application security study
Download this report to see the alarming realities regarding the sheer number of applications vulnerable to attack, as well as the most common and easily addressable vulnerability errors.