Cell Phone Privacy Issues – Why It’s Impossible to Be Anonymous and Private on Cellular Networks

In this post we’re going to talk about using mobile cell phones and cellular networks for security privacy & anonymity and why actually that can’t really happen. It is an unfortunate fact that serious privacy and anonymity with modern smartphones using one of the popular operating systems on a mobile network is pretty much unattainable. The problem is everyone wants to use a modern non-privacy-focused smartphone and a popular operating system plus we connect to insecure mobile networks that track everything we do, It’s a problem. If you were to design a solution for de-anonymizing you and eroding your privacy, a mobile phone and network would be the solution that you would come up with. It is perfect for it – even if you’re using a proxy.

So it’s really an uphill battle to get security privacy and anonymity with your modern mobile phone and mobile networks. For me with mobile devices and phones, it’s more of a best-effort approach to privacy and anonymity so, for example, I’m going to use a secure messaging app like signal but I acknowledge that if I’m using an iPhone, Apple, my network provider, can control my phone if they really want to and that’s the same for all other major operating systems and networks like Android, Windows, BlackBerry et cetera.

we simply have less control over these devices than we do over desktops and laptops. Replacing the operating system on these phones is deliberately made difficult and its much harder to investigate malware and find and remove potential undesirable programs on these smartphones. But let me clarify, what I mean is you’re still pretty safe using a mobile banking app on an iPhone as long as the app and infrastructure is securely designed however if you want serious privacy and anonymity from a serious adversary who is well resourced like a nation state is near impossible. Well-designed security applications like mobile banking apps are designed in such a way that they help mitigate some of the underlying problems of the mobile network and the mobile platform. So I’ll just summarize the issues of why serious privacy and anonymity is a lost cause and why you should consider it best efforts really, mobile and cellular network security could be a cost to itself really. And later on I’m going to provide some mitigations to these issues that we go through.

cellular networks and ss7 explained

In the image above you can see two mobile operators connected by the SS7 protocol. So let’s consider the issues with the network provider or operator issues when it comes to privacy and anonymity and security.

Well first of all they can record your voice calls and they do if they need to, they can record and log the content of your internet data traffic anything unencrypted. That would be anything that is encrypted they would have to do an active attack which will be more difficult which is why end to end encryption is always what you need. The operator can read and store SMS messages, MMS messages and they can send a short message type zero also known as a silent SMS which can be sent to keep track of you by your geographic location. Some of them provide software updates that can manipulate your phone which means they can essentially take control of your phone but this will depend on your phone and your provider as some countries and networks are very different when it comes to software updates.

They can also do what’s called Tower dorms of all the connected phones over a given time on request. This is to help track and cross correlate who you know and who might be in the area at the same time, this is done for third parties on request. When you are connected to their network they can know your MAC address which is unique to your phone and if you purchased it non anonymously then it uniquely identifies you.

They record metadata like call duration, course location, callers and receivers of calls, time of calls, time of SMS and picture messages, Internet usage. And then over the air an advisory can possibly get your subscriber identity your IMZI and with IMZI attached they can get the TMSI with TMSI call patterns

Over the air an adversary can potentially get a hold of your precise location through location based services and triangulation in built up areas with more towers. A more precise location can be made where there is less towers in a less built up area the location is less precise. Providers between each other can also exchange data about the location of devices for more accuracy in locating.

Your data, voice, SMS can be intercepted by adversaries with the right equipment if there is no encryption or there is weak encryption. The encryption will depend on the provider that you have chosen and the network implementation and some governments have pressured providers to deliberately weaken encryption for that purpose.

So those are the general concerns that you would have in terms of privacy and anonymity when it comes to your provider and the general over the air issues.

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