9 December 2013

Liberia: Is Liberian Govt. Listening in On Phone Conversations, Report Raises Concerns

Monrovia — If you're in Liberia and often hear some echoes during phone conversations with your friends, families or loved ones, chances are your cell phone may probably be tapped and the government may be listening in on you.

The Liberian government reportedly sought permission from the United Nations Security Council to import a device which could give the government ammunition to listen in on cellular phone calls of its citizens.

The revelation contained in the latest findings of the United Nations Panel of Experts report states that the Committee received five notifications following the issuance of the Panel's midterm report. "Three of the notifications might have applied to issues beyond the scope of paragraph 6 of resolution 1903 (2009): the notification of 2 August 2013 pertained to funding for a policy forum on security sector reform; the notification of 19 August 2013 pertained to the sale of an International Mobile Subscriber Identity catcher to intercept cellular telephone calls to the Liberia Telecommunications Corporation."

The GSM interception systems allow an attacker to actively interfere in communications between mobile phones and base stations by means of a so-called IMSI-catcher, in essence a transmitter and receiver that simulates the functionality of a GSM base station.

An IMSI-catcher is a device that can be used to determine the electronic identities of all phones in its vicinity. Most IMSI-Catchers also come with the ability to listen into calls directly. The electronic identity consists of the so called International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI), which is associated with your SIM card and the International Mobile Equipment Identifier (IMEI), which is the serial number of your phone. With the IMSI your calls can be easily identified at any point in the telephone network and targeted for interception and traffic analysis. A IMSI-catcher is frequently used if the attacker does not know the telephone number of the victim or wants to illegally intercept calls.

The IMSI-catcher performs a so called man-in-the-middle-attack, putting itself between you and the network. It is essentially a small GSM base station that forces your phone to use it instead of the real network, determines your IMSI, and can then be used to disable or degrade the GSM encryption mode while transmitting your call on to the legitimate network. This mode of operation allows the attacker to directly listen into your calls. He can also disable your phone service and intercept or fake SMS messages to and from your phone.

How it works

The IMSI catcher subjects the phones in its vicinity to a man-in-the-middle attack, acting to them as a preferred base station in terms of signal strength. With the help of a SIM, it simultaneously logs into the GSM network as a mobile station. Since the encryption mode is chosen by the base station, the IMSI-catcher can induce the mobile station to use no encryption at all. Hence, it can encrypt the plain text traffic from the mobile station and pass it to the base station.

There is only an indirect connection from mobile station via IMSI-catcher to the GSM network. For this reason, incoming phone calls cannot generally be patched through to the mobile station by the GSM network, although more modern versions of these devices have their own mobile patch-thru solutions in order to provide this functionality.

Paragraph 6 of Security Council resolution 1903 (2009) requires advance notification by States for shipments of arms and related materiel to the Government of Liberia or for the provision of training. The Panel has not received any information to suggest that the resolution has been violated during the current mandate.

According to the panel, the notification of 13 November 2013 also pertained to the export of de-armed cartridges to the United Nations Mine Action Service in Liberia through the Mine Action Service in Côte d'Ivoire. "The other two notifications were from the United States and were dated 3 September and 6 November 2013. The first cited plans by a private company in the United States to provide 300 sets of body armour to the Police Support Unit. The notification did not specify a date for the provision of the equipment and noted that up to 700 more sets of body armour could be provided by the same company in the future. The second cited the shipment of crowd-control equipment to the Liberia National Police in two loads through the Port of Monrovia, the first following approval and the second during the first quarter of 2014. The Panel notes that in paragraph 6 of resolution 1903 (2009) the Security Council stressed the importance that notifications contain all relevant information, including the proposed date of delivery and the itinerary of shipments. Such information could assist in monitoring points of entry into Liberia and differentiating between legal and possibly illicit shipments of arms and related materiel."

Another notification by the Government of Israel dated 22 February 2013 concerning a shipment of pistols and ammunition by Israel Weapon Industries Limited to the Liberian National Security Agency cited a date of export of 20 March 2013.

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