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RF networks under assault


The use of cell phones as a remote detonator noted in the WSJ Terror's Latest Trigger: Cell phones is only the beginning of a wave of impacts from a variety of devices with embedded microprocessors. While authorities are focused on cell phones, terrorists can move on to, say, PDAs, pagers, and PCs at a WiFi hot spot. GPS-enabled phones and devices could be triggered when they arrive at the right place regardless of the time. The telematics installations in vehicles could be engaged so that a device could be triggered either by a phone call, timer, or position -- or even altitude.

The critical path remains available RF spectrum. Should nations move to the unlikely prospect of disabling their cell phone networks, the perpetrators can just move on to WiFi. The very reasons that these RF enabled tools are so popular make them an ideal trigger in a soft target areas such as a coffee shop or a stadium.

"But short of shutting down a country's cell phone network, there isn't much that can be done to reduce this risk. Indeed, the proliferation of radio devices -- in everything from cell phones to garage openers to hand-held devices that remotely unlock car doors -- means much of the modern world is virtually blanketed with wireless radio-wave technology."

If nations can not respond or suppress, how will local sites respond? Many facilities have already responded with illegal jammers, albeit for non-terrorist related reasons.

Many offices, hospitals, secure and/or military installations, places of public entertainment, and -- in Scotland -- hotels, are using illegal jammers to overpower a base station over a tunable spectrum. Some jammers are sophisticated enough to produce an interfering signal long enough to disable and then shut down. Others simulate a base station in order to establish communications with a phone with instructions to go to an inactive channel. The upshot is that the phone cannot communicate with the original base station.

Legal passive cell phone detectors can scan cellular-frequency bands and sound an alarm on detecting a cell-phone signal. The facility can then restrict entry if it so desires.

Note that the jammers themselves can be a target, i.e., if I want your facility as opposed to one next door, I get the device close enough to detect your jamming signal as a trigger.

A good primmer on jammers is Jam that ringing cell phone? by Warren Webb, EDN.

The impact on commerce, on the very backbone of enabled RF devices is mind boggling. We could see individual buildings or stores elect to take themselves out of the net(s) creating dark pockets in RF networks. A decade of infrastructure has been built to embed RF technology in every aspect of our life.

When I think of RFID tags, I think of assassination tools that detect the pre-scanned and identified RFID chip in a credit card, vehicle, or other device known to be on or near the targeted individual. The device is triggered when the target comes into range, and as that is generally a few meters, lethality is almost assured.

While there have been notable successes, such as in Switzerland, the sale of untraceable cell phones and SIM cards continues to climb outside the US where "almost 90% of users have contracts that require extensive application processes, including a credit check." Outside the US it is easy to obtain cell phones via prepaid subscription systems.

Using cell phones as triggers is only the beginning of an unpleasant and prolonged collision of our modern infrastructure with terrorists.

Gordon Housworth

Cybersecurity Public  InfoT Public  Infrastructure Defense Public  Terrorism Public  


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