Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2011/04/14/free_libyana/
Free Libyana: Gadaffi networkjacker speaks!
Abushagur tells The Reg how he nabbed a network
Ousama Abushagur stole a mobile phone network from Colonel Gadaffi's son, and has told El Reg how it was done and what the future holds for Free Libyana.
The Wall Street Journal covered the launch of Free Libyana yesterday, how the Libyana network was subverted and hijacked to serve the country without reference to Tripoli. That coverage provided great drama, but little in the way of technical details and a few inaccuracies that Abushagur would like to clear up: specifically the complete lack of governmental support he received, and the necessity for international calls to be routed through London's Docklands.
Despite these issues the Free Libyana network is now connecting 725,000 users across an area comparable in size to England, without having to build any network infrastructure or install base stations - all that was stolen from one of the existing operators, along with its customers.
Libya has two GSM networks; AL MADAR AL JADID and Libyana. The latter was selected not because it happens to be run by Gadaffi's son, but because its network infrastructure was well known and local engineers in Benghazi could be relied upon to help. Abushagur didn't steal the network alone, but he did come up with the idea and raise the money to make it happen.
The London routing happens because the satellite connectivity for international calling is being leased from the IDT Corporation. IDT provides per-minute billing, via pre-paid cards, for connections from Benghazi to London's Telehouse and from there to the rest of the world - at least the parts of it that accept the existence of the Free Libyana network.
The WSJ faithfully quoted a Benghazi official who claimed the UAE government and its operator Etisalat provided vital support for the project, along with the government of Qatar, but Abushagur is having none of it. "I wish they did [provide support]," he told us. "If one of them could have waved a flag we might not have been stuck in Egyptian customs for more than a week."
When we spoke last night Etisalat was not even routing calls onto the Free Libyana network, though this morning that seems to have improved as more operators start routing calls to the new operator. But what's most annoyed Abushagur and the others involved is the inference that governments might have contributed financially to the creation of Free Libyana.
"We raised all the money from Libyans who could see it was important. We're still waiting for all the money and equipment [media reports] say we have received."
That money was spent on equipment, primarily a Home Location Register (HLR) bought from Tecore Networks. Every mobile network has one HLR, which tracks every mobile phone so it knows where calls should be routed. When Free Libyana set up in Benghazi the local Libyana engineers provided access to the VLRs (Visitor Location Register) which provide details of nearby handsets. That data was then used to populate the new HLR and get things up and running.
That enables Free Libyana users to keep their existing phone numbers - important when you're trying to track down friends and family - but it also means that all the communication over Free Libyana is entirely unencrypted.
GSM security is based on a shared secret, a cryptographic key stored on the SIM and on the Authentication Server. For the Libyana network that's in Tripoli and for the moment beyond the interim government's reach; so to make use of the existing SIMs the network has had to switch off all encryption.
That's not as serious as it sounds - many GSM networks around the world run without encryption thanks to US restrictions on exporting secure communications equipment. Such countries suffer from a certain amount of fraud from SIM cloning, and listening in to calls becomes easier, but not as easy as plugging into the routing hub, which is what governments usually do.
Ousama Abushagur is optimistic he'll be able to get the GSMA to hand over copies of the cryptographic keys for the 725,000 active users on Free Libyana, but we're not convinced - in the long term replacement SIMs might be the only solution if security is going to be restored.
Communication is essential to restore normality to the region, as well as enabling the interim government to coordinate municipal services and relief efforts. Satellite phones were already in use, but at $2,000 a time the cost was prohibitive; and interim-government officials weren't keen to stand around in open spaces, for prolonged periods, while talking on the phone.
The next thing is to get over-the-air provisioning to work, so subscribers whose numbers weren't in the captured VLRs can connect to the network without being manually added. Free Libyana also expects to have an SMSC running within the next week, so Libyans will be able to text as well as talking to their friends for free.
And free it will remain - there's no sign of a billing system for domestic calls as yet, while international dialling requires the use of pre-paid calling cards and is restricted to numbers registered with the operator. What happens when Libya returns to being a single country is harder to say, and will rather depend on whose country it ends up being; but for close to a million people Ousama Abushagur and his team have created connections where there were none, and made a lot of ordinary people much happier. ®