Another threat from mobile devices

Researchers say hackers could track the physical location of cell phone users


As if there weren't enough threats to worry about when it comes to the security of mobile devices, researchers at the University of Minnesota say they have found a way to easily track the physical location of a cell phone user.

According to the research findings, which were recently released in a paper and presented at the 19th Annual Network & Distributed System Security Symposium in San Diego, the vulnerability stems from cell towers that track cell phone subscribers in an effort to provide efficient service.

"For example, an incoming voice call requires the network to locate that device so it can allocate the appropriate resources to handle the call," said computer science Ph.D. student Denis Foo Kune in a statement. Kune worked on the research along with associate professors Nick Hopper and Yongdae Kim. "Your cell phone network has to at least loosely track your phone within large regions in order to make it easy to find it."

However, the researchers found that hackers can tap into the communication between a cell tower and a user's cell phone, thereby allowing them to track the physical location of the user without their knowledge. In fact, the researchers were able to track a test subject within a 10-block area using readily available equipment.

One of the potential risks noted by the researchers that is relevant for corporate security managers is the ability of someone to be able to tell that a cell phone is not present in a specific area. The ability to track the movements of a guard, for instance, would be a tremendous advantage for someone looking to break into a facility.

The fact that we've integrated a lot of security features, such as access to video camera feeds, into mobile devices, would make it that much more difficult to place restrictions on the use of cell phones at organizations.

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