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That GSOC UK 3G network

In a statement to the Dail last week Alan Shatter said:

The third issue related to the security firm reporting the detection of an unexpected UK 3G network in the area in the locality of the GSOC offices which suggested that UK phones registered to that network making calls would be vulnerable to interception. Importantly, I am advised that neither the chairman nor any other member of GSOC or its employees use UK-registered mobile phones, so that the presence of any such device in the locality would not seem to have posed a threat to the integrity of GSOC’s communications systems. There appears to be no evidence that what was detected had any direct relevance to GSOC.

In the Irish Independent today, security journalist Paul Williams, well known for his crime coverage, wrote:

It has also emerged that the detection of a UK 3G mobile network during a sweep came from the mobile phones being used by the Verrimus security experts themselves.

A second anomaly relating to a UK 3G mobile network also appears to have been explained. It is understood experts from a security firm hired by GSOC had UK phones. Last week GSOC chairman Simon O’Brien told the Oireachtas Oversight Committee that he did not have a UK mobile phone but confirmed that “we had UK operatives who were operating in our building at the time”.

In response to questions from the Irish Independent, the GSOC spokesperson confirmed yesterday that “no GSOC staff member uses a UK mobile phone for official business”. When asked to confirm who were the “UK operatives” referred to by the chairman, the spokesperson revealed that they were “the UK security specialists undertaking the sweep”.

Anyone who understands how IMSI catchers work would know that the Minister is being selective and that Williams is flat wrong – mobile phones don’t create UK mobile networks.

What I am concerned at is the similarity between what Shatter said in the Dail, and what Paul Williams wrote in the Indo. Both appear to completely miss the point of IMSI catchers.

What is also interesting is that Williams quotes a GSOC statement which says [emphasis mine] “no GSOC staff member uses a UK mobile phone for official business”. GSOC chair Simon O’Brien travels frequently between England and Ireland, and doubtless (though I could be wrong) has a UK mobile phone intended for personal calls.

Let us speculate for a moment. If one was setting up a surveillance op on GSOC – and if the primary target was O’Brien – one would try to surveil every type of activity:

1) Listen in on phonecalls on his office phone
2) Listen in on conference room activity for meetings he might attend, and
3) Track his mobile phone activity – including voice, text and data.

It just so happens those were pretty much the three anomalies found by Verrimus.

Any other information gathered from GSOC in the course of the surveillance would be a bonus.

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  1. Evert Bopp says

    Williams is just rehashing Shatters statement which is heavy on obfustication and light on fact.
    If a UK cellular network and an unauthorised wifi device was detected it all screams of a wiretapping attempt.
    It’s easy enough to “spoof” a cellular (2G or 3G) network but you will require equipment the size of a laptop and this can not be done from a laptop. By pretending to be a network provider “known” to the phone it becomes easy to intercept data without the user knowing. This is known as a “man-in-the-middle attack).
    The wifi device, if it is indeed not owned by GSOC, is either placed on purpose to create an entry point into the network that can be accessed from outside the building (maliciously) or it is a rogue AP which means that it’s just bad security management.

  2. Arthur Doohan says

    This blog post
    http://www.theverge.com/2013/12/30/5256636/nsa-tailored-access-jacob-appelbaum-speech-30c3
    makes it clear that ‘cellphone base stations’ can be and are used to attempt surveillance at targeted locations.
    The requisite technology is not ‘state sponsored’ and is not expensive….

  3. David Higgins says

    Just to correct one or two minor points, although I agree with the main point of your piece, O’Brien stated to the committee that he does not have any UK mobile phone (surprising in this day and age but that’s what he even reiterated). Also, while a 2G base station spoofer is easy tech a 3G one is ‘state-level’ technology and there’s no way in hell any security company worth their salt would mistake a mobile phone in their own pocket for a base station of any kind.

Continuing the Discussion

  1. GSOC, Williams, Callinan and Shatter. Hardly Credible | Soundmigration linked to this post on February 19, 2014

    […] phone network using a couple of phones from the UK. This was all false, nothing about it was true. It is simply not possible. La la land. I hadn’t planned on writing on any specific journalist for fear of litigation as […]

  2. Revisiting The Truth: Paul Williams And GSOC : rabble linked to this post on February 19, 2014

    […] original text here and edited text […]



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