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Qualcomm has a solution for ‘stingray’ devices hijacking your cell connection, and apps will be able to use it too

You probably won’t wake up in the morning for fear that your phone will outright betray you. Malware and security vulnerabilities are one thing, but updates keep that ogre away. And while we read about bad guys being caught by stingrays and trash cans (fake cell towers), that’s just something the authorities use to keep us safe – right? Whatever your take on that can of worms I probably shouldn’t have mentioned, it’s now also getting easier for criminals to build them. A demo site at Qualcomm’s recent event even caught an analyst’s phone. But companies like Qualcomm have been working on ways to reduce that.


Full disclosure: Qualcomm flew me and dozens of other journalists, analysts, and content creators to the Snapdragon Summit media event in Hawaii. It’s hot outside, we’re all masked and I’m pretty sweaty.

At the Summit, Qualcomm had set up a demo to show how its phones can detect these Stingray cell sites and their tricks. You may not be aware of it, but these kinds of software-defined cell towers are getting cheaper and easier to build – Qualcomm had one sitting in a box on a table, made with readily available hardware and almost entirely open-source software, making it is quite easy to assemble. It’s not just something that state-level actors or the police can afford to do. And they’re not just used for tracking locations or intercepting communications. Like everything these days, they can also be used for spam.

Can’t say it’s an issue I’ve personally encountered, but Qualcomm showed a demonstration of a text message sent by a mobile site simulator pretending to be a bank reporting fraudulent transactions. This is the same kind of spam messages some of us get on a daily basis, but the message from the fake cell site is more convincing. You may not be aware of this, but text messages are not encrypted, and from a man-in-the-middle point of view, these fake towers can send messages that look legit, seemingly from the correct phone numbers. Throw in a link to a malicious site, and what seems like a trustworthy post may be anything but.

There isn’t much you can do to prevent that right away. Texting is an old, bad standard (which is why people like me are so excited about things like RCS messages, which allow for end-to-end encryption). But if you can’t stop the delivery of the messages, at least you can prevent devices from connecting to fake mobile sites that send them.

See, the way these sites work is by making themselves more attractive to your phone. If you’re wandering around town already connected to a legit cell tower, these fake ones should do something special to stand out as a good choice for your phone to switch to. They do it with things like higher signal strength and by not offering a list of neighboring towers for easy transfers, which will likely make devices abandon them (among other more technical configuration settings). Like a data-filled pitcher plant, it’s poised to trap phones and do anything not to let them go.

In the demo I saw today, the demonstration cell site even grabbed Moor Insights & Strategy senior analyst Anshel Sag’s Galaxy S21 Ultra, and gave it the nefarious sample message we saw on a demo phone. These things really work!

Fortunately, those attractive features actually make it easier to detect the bad cellular sites, and phones can spot things like a lack of listed neighbors or too high a signal strength regarding features, and Qualcomm’s modems can detect that. In fact, the logic for this runs entirely within the modem itself, separate from the operating system or the rest of the chipset. The usual black box warnings apply: it’s probably more secure and probably unaffected by malware on the device, but you’ll have less of an idea of ​​what’s going on in there.

This isn’t an entirely new concept, and Qualcomm says its modems have had this technology for some time for 2G, 3G and 4G networks (and, via its transitive feature, 5G NSA, which relies on a 4G backbone to connect to make). But the new X65 modem, available in the Snapdragon 8 Gen 1, brings that detection to standalone 5G networks. And when it finds a potentially untrustworthy mobile site, it either gives up the priority (if it’s just suspicious) or blocks the connection outright if it’s a real stinker.

But if you absolutely must connect to one of these suspicious mobile sites, Qualcomm also plans to roll out a slew of developer APIs as part of an SDK that will help apps make informed decisions on their own, too. That could be a banking app that doesn’t trust these suspicious connections to protect you from a man-in-the-middle attack or a messaging app that doesn’t consider or apply a warning label to text messages that come in when they arrive. are connected to Stingrayed towers. Unfortunately, I’m told this side of things isn’t quite done yet, but the APIs are coming.

We all ignore our digital security more than we probably should. It’s a topic that’s hard to make attractive or present as a great feature in the same way we talk about speed gains or camera improvements, for example. Being safe is not a fun new toy. But this is one of those things that doesn’t require any effort on your part to make your life better, though developers will have some work to do once those new APIs are available to detect these spoofed mobile sites.

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About the author

Ryne Hager (2848 articles published)

Seemingly a senior editor, in reality just a verbose guy who digs into technology, loves Android and hates anti-competitive practices. The only thing he regrets is that he did not buy a Nokia N9 in 2012. Email tips or corrections for ryne on androidpolice dot com.

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