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Obama's BlackBerry brings personal safety risks

The U.S. president's insistence on keeping his RIM device creates a number of risks, chief among them: attacks against his location privacy and physical security.

Chris Soghoian
Christopher Soghoian delves into the areas of security, privacy, technology policy and cyber-law. He is a student fellow at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society , and is a PhD candidate at Indiana University's School of Informatics. His academic work and contact information can be found by visiting www.dubfire.net/chris/.
Chris Soghoian
7 min read

When the mainstream media first announced Barack Obama's "victory" in keeping his BlackBerry, the focus was on the security of the device, and keeping the U.S. president's e-mail communications private from spies and hackers.

The news coverage and analysis by armchair security experts thus far has failed to focus on the real threat: attacks against President Obama's location privacy, and the potential physical security risks that come with someone knowing the president's real-time physical location.

Barack Obama and BlackBerry
President Obama and his BlackBerry at the White House in late January. UPI Photo/Ron Sachs/Pool

Serial numbers
Before we dive in, let's take a moment to note that each mobile phone has a unique serial number, known as an IMEI, or MEID. This unique number is transmitted in clear text, every time the phone communicates with a nearby cell tower. Thus, while the contents of a phone call or the data session (for e-mail) are usually encrypted, anyone with the right equipment can home in on a particular IMEI and identify the location of the source of that signal.

The most common device used to locate a phone by its IMEI is a "Triggerfish", a piece of equipment that is routinely used by law enforcement and intelligence agencies. This kind of device tricks nearby cell phones into transmitting their serial numbers and other information by impersonating a cell tower.

The devices, which are actually fairly low-tech, were used to hunt down famed hacker Kevin Mitnick back in the 1990s. Most interesting of all, according to Department of Justice documents, Triggerfish can be used to reveal a suspect's location "without the user knowing about it and without involving the cell phone provider."

The expensive brand-name Triggerfish devices, made by the Harris Corp., are sold only to government agencies. However, it is almost certain that foreign governments have similar technology. Furthermore, someone with a low budget could likely use the open-source GNU Radio platform, which can already decipher GSM signals, to roll their own phone sniffer.

Finding Obama
We know that the president has been given a White House-issued BlackBerry phone. As a result, Obama's smartphone is broadcasting its IMEI serial number for anyone with the right equipment to detect.

Of course, the president is never alone, and so it is likely that anyone sniffing the wireless spectrum near the president would pick up hundreds of different BlackBerrys in the area.

However, Obama's aides do have to go home at some point, whereas Obama sleeps at the White House. This means that over the course of several days or weeks, it should be possible for a patient adversary to determine which IMEI belongs to the president's phone, and which IMEIs are associated with the phones of aides, simply by following the president (at a distance) and monitoring the spectrum at all hours.

As staffers go home for the evening, and Secret Service agents rotate out of duty, an adversary can strike their IMEI numbers off of the list. Within days, that initial list of 100 BlackBerrys can be reduced down to a single IMEI identifying the president's phone

Were someone to learn the president's IMEI, they could use it to gain valuable (and dangerous) information. For example, by pointing an antenna at the White House, it'd be possible to instantly determine if the president was inside. With a sophisticated-enough antenna, it might even be possible to determine which vehicle the president is sitting in while traveling in a motorcade, or to determine if the Secret Service is driving an empty limousine along a high-profile route to draw attention, while the president travels to a venue in an unmarked vehicle. The digital trail left by the president's BlackBerry would soon announce his presence to those keeping an eye out for his IMEI.

I am sure that others could come up with even more nefarious uses for real-time access to the president's physical location. I will leave that task to the blogosphere.

The simple solution to this problem, of course, is for the President to regularly change his IMEI serial number by getting a new phone. However, this presents another problem: that of the odd man out.

Imagine that foreign spies point a directional antenna at the White House and are thus able to capture the IMEI numbers of Obama and his team, as they leave and return to the White House from various events.

If a new IMEI number were to suddenly appear, be used for one week, disappear, and then be replaced by a new IMEI, which was also used for a week, before also disappearing, it would soon be obvious that a single person was changing phones. This pattern would be even more obvious, if everyone else in the president's entourage kept using their own phone--and thus broadcast the same IMEI, week after week.

Simply put, the only way that President Obama can gain some level of anonymity with regard to his IMEI number is if everyone in his team also changes their IMEI numbers with the same regularity.

Fans of the HBO TV show The Wire (a group that includes Obama) will no doubt remember the use of cheap prepaid "burner" phones by the fictional drug dealers. In order to avoid being wiretapped by the police, the entire criminal gang would dispose of their phones at once and switch to brand-new devices.

Essentially, the White House needs to start using burners.

Cost-effective protection
It would be extremely expensive (and wasteful) for the president and his staff to get a new BlackBerry each week. Luckily, there are two options available to the White House tech staff that allow them to protect the president's location privacy in a cost-effective (and environmentally friendly) way:

First, the White House geek team can simply shuffle the BlackBerrys used by the President's staff. That is, take away everyone's phone, mix them up, restore the software to the factory default, then issue a "new" phone to each staffer.

Within minutes, the phones would synchronize with the White House e-mail servers, and thus the "new" devices would have instant access to the e-mails and information that had been on the previous device.

The inconvenience factor of such a solution could also be significantly reduced by having twice as many phones as employees--that way, staff would not have to go without their phone for more than a minute or two, as they were swapped each week.

As long as this shuffling of phones were done randomly, the IMEI numbers would be sufficiently anonymized. Sure, a potential attacker would know that the device belonged to a member of the White House staff, but they would not know whether if belonged to a lowly intern, the press secretary, or the president.

A slightly more laborious method would be to hack the software running on the BlackBerrys and flash the devices with a new serial number. While this is quite possibly a violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (which prohibits most forms of phone hacking), it is unlikely that Research In Motion (which makes the BlackBerry) would sue the White House for engaging in such reverse engineering.

Of course, the downside of giving each phone a new serial number is that these phones would then need to be re-registered with the wireless communication company, which would otherwise refuse to provide the devices with service. However, this additional burden for the White House techies would yield significant security benefits, as each phone would be given a clean IMEI number not associated with the White House.

In this article, I've focused solely on the scenario of a bad guy with an antenna. There is also the very real (and significant) risk of an insider working for the phone company.

Insiders are a notoriously difficult security problem to fix, something Obama has likely already learned, after his passport file was read by a contractor working for the State Department.

Even if every person working for the White House's telecommunications carrier were honest, it could also be possible to social-engineer the information out of a customer service representative (otherwise known as "pretexting").

Alternatively, an adversary could simply hack into the computer systems used by the phone company in order to get information on Obama's phone. Is was this latter approach that was followed by an unknown attacker who was able to spy on the phone calls of more than 100 Greek government officials during the 2004 Olympics.

Foreign trips
President Obama is likely to go on many foreign trips during his four (or more) years in office. In addition to burdening taxpayers with the obscene international roaming rates associated with his foreign BlackBerry usage, there are new and more serious security concerns to consider.

The federal government can most likely trust AT&T and the other wireless carriers. After all, they did join forces with the National Security Agency to spy on millions of American's phone calls without a warrant. The telecommunication companies in foreign countries are far less likely to be pro-United States, and in some cases, they are likely to be working closely with foreign intelligence agencies.

Thus, as long as President Obama keeps his BlackBerry turned on while he is in China, it is likely that the Chinese government will be closely monitoring his location, as reported by the president's phone to the Chinese government-owned phone company. The same sort of security issues will likely arise in many other countries.

Due to these security concerns, this blogger would be extremely surprised if the Secret Service permitted the President to use his BlackBerry when on foreign trips.

As you can see, the use of a BlackBerry by the president creates a number of very real security headaches that are no doubt keeping several people at the Secret Service awake at night. While the initial focus of the press was on the e-mail and smartphone technology in the president's phone, the real threats and risks are actually associated with more boring functions of the device.

Further reading: M. Jakobsson and S. Wetzel. "Security Weaknesses in Bluetooth" (PDF) describes some very similar location privacy attacks against mobile phones using Bluetooth-based sniffers.