I am pretty up-to-date on data privacy and security and technology, but the 60 Minutes episode this past Sunday night floored even me. If you didn’t see it, it is worth streaming.
Basically, 60 Minutes showed Karsten Nohl, a German computer scientist, remotely attacking U.S. Congressman Ted Lieu’s cell phone and listening to his cell phone calls. I mean, listening to every conversation clear as day. The spying was allowed by security bugs in the global telecommunications network known as Signaling System No. 7 (a/k/a SS7), which allows carriers to connect so they can offer roaming and texting. According to Nohl, SS7 will be used for the next 10 to 15 years until its replacement (Diameter) is implemented, and Diameter is also vulnerable.
Representative Lieu admitted during the show that he has spoken with President Obama on that phone. After hearing the conversation, which was taped, he said, “First, it’s really creepy. And second, it makes me angry.” Following the revelation, Lieu asked the House Oversight Committee to investigate the vulnerability. Well it is a matter of national security, isn’t it?
The Federal Communications Commission announced on Wednesday that it too will begin a study of mobile carriers’ use of SS7, which has been used for decades and has reached its end of life.
Nohl has publicized the vulnerability since 2014, and the telecom carriers responded by providing alerts regarding the vulnerabilities and ways to fix them. But the message from the program is that all cell phones are vulnerable, and we can all be the victim of spying and someone listening to all of our telephone calls.
I still have a landline and I use it. Although only marketers tend to call me on my landline, I am becoming more and more a believer of using landlines again in homes and offices. A couple of weeks ago, when alerting everyone to sophisticated phishing schemes, I advised to pick up the phone and call the boss to see if s/he really wants you to email those W-2s. The phone on your desk still works. And it is secure—probably more secure than a cell phone. So instead of relying on email or a cell phone, verify strange requests with your landline—the old way.
So why are landline telephones almost extinct, particularly when it appears they may be the answer to many security issues? The telephone companies want to limit or remove them because the lines are so expensive to maintain.
Thirteen states in the past three years, including Maine, have allowed telephone companies to stop providing traditional basic telephone services to consumers (i.e.landlines).. Ever try to get cell service in Maine or New Hampshire? Oftentimes in remote areas the message is “no service.” So if you don’t have the ability to get a landline, and you don’t have cell phone service, how can you call an ambulance, the police, or the fire department in an emergency?
That is the concern of the AARP and other consumer groups, as many elderly individuals do not have cell phones, do not get cell phone service, and will have no way to communicate in rural areas if they are unable to keep their landline.
So the conundrum is that landlines are arguably more secure than cell phones, and picking up the telephone is an important security risk management tool, but landlines are becoming extinct.
The Privacy Tip? Use your landline. It’s probably a more secure way to communicate these days because hackers aren’t concentrating on them at the moment. And hopefully the telephone companies and state regulators can figure out a way to keep landlines in existence for consumers in a manner that is reasonable to the telephone companies. It may be a matter of national security.