Encryption for cell phones easily broken by intelligence agencies and hackers

The National Security Agency (NSA) has the ability to crack common cell phone technology, according to a recent report. This means it can easily decode and access telephone calls and texts being sent anywhere. This technology, known as A5/1, is “the world’s most common stream cipher used to encrypt cellular data as it transmits to cell towers,” according to Mashable.

Vulnerability of system and confirmation of use by intelligence agencies

Encryption and other security experts have long been aware of this system vulnerability, which itself is decades old. Rumors about this capability by intelligence agencies, including the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), NSA and US military, have long been floating around the cyber-sphere, but recent revelations by NSA Whistleblower Edward Snowden confirmed them.

Revelations of surveillance tactics have been fueled by the documents leaked by Snowden. The extent of vast data collection and the techniques used have been detailed in the classified documents released by Snowden, raising issues of privacy and, now, in a recent US court finding, issues of constitutionality as well.

How the intelligence community sees it

There’s no surprise about the fact that, throughout history, governments (and those trying to hide secrets from the government) have used encryption methods. Breaking codes have led to military victories and momentous, life-changing results. That the technological tools have changed is only the face of modernity showing; the essential need to break through codes has long been with us and will continue to be into the future.

And, one could argue, it’s not just governments doing the code-breaking. As recently as December 2009, German Cryptographer Karsten Nohl of Security Research Labs announced at a hackers’ convention in Berlin that a group of researchers had broken the transmission standard encryption used in 80 percent of the world’s cell phones, according to Tech News Daily.

Following Nohl’s revelations (which he asserted were revealed to showcase just how vulnerable the system was), a team of cryptographers at Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science revealed that it was possible to crack the 3G networks, which were supposedly more secure than the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) system cracked by Nohl and his colleagues.

Intelligence, the law and phone systems

While it’s clear that the scope and depth of data collection is far beyond what most Americans ever could have imagined before the Snowden leaks, US law does prohibit the collecting of content of Americans’ conversations without a court order. However, whatever protection was once afforded by the cell phone systems themselves must now be assumed vulnerable. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is understandably not alone in being disturbed by US intelligence agencies listening in on her private conversations.

And, of course, one must assume that if US intelligence agencies like the CIA and NSA can easily crack the code of cell phone encryption to listen in on private conversations of heads of state (not to mention lesser citizens), so too can other nations.

Weakness of overall system

While those with 3G and 4G cell phone systems might assume their conversations are better protected, the majority of cell phones worldwide use weak or no encryption for at least some of their calls, notes the Washington Post. Says the Post, “When a phone indicates a 3G or 4G network, a call might actually be carried over an older frequency and susceptible to decoding.”

There are also devices in use capable of tricking cell phones into linking with interception media thus defeating encryption. These are commonly used throughout the United States by as many as 25 different police departments (and found under the brand name Harris StingRay). These are also in use internationally.

As a result, the best assumption anyone who uses a cell phone can make is that no single cell phone or encryption device is ultimately successful in assuring privacy for every call, even under the best of circumstances.