Cyber Defence Library

Cellular Warfare

Cellular Warfare

In this paper the possibilities of cyber warfare activities connected to cell phone networks are. We analyze known attacks that originate in and/or target cellular phone networks as weapons of cyber warfare.

The historic high reliability of cellular networks has caused a significant reliance on them as the sole means of communication in many developed countries, making it a part of national critical infrastructures. The growing popularity of smartphones opens up cellular network both to the advantages and disadvantages currently associated with the internet.

The possibility that an attacker could deny cellular voice/SMS services to legitimate users is already widely discussed. Such attacks could begin by using internet services to send SMS messages or using a botnet consisting of smart cellular phones. Such attacks could be aimed at a core infrastructure to shut down or cripple a cellular network; even very small botnets could be used to launch attacks that disrupt or limit cellular services in targeted geographical areas.

The possible usage of such techniques both by nation-states and by non-state-actors that could be used as effective digital cover for their actions is evaluated. The advantage of such attacks is that virtually no hardware is needed to launch them and all activities can be developed, tested and controlled remotely from a safe location. This makes them a good choice for parties seeking asymmetric advantages. Another technique we discuss is the use of cellular botnets to launch a denial of service attack against emergency call services or other phone lines in critical infrastructure.

The excellent record of cellular networks does not prove that cellular networks are reliable; we believe that there has simply been a lack of real-world attacks so far. An overview of current and possible countermeasures is provided to show the level of complexity of such a task. We estimate that the importance of this threat will increase together with the rise in both the popularity and the complexity of smartphones.

Published in:  Proceedings of the 8th European Conference on Information Warfare and Security, ECIW 2009, 6-7 July, Lisbon, Portugal.

Podins, K. (2009). Cellular Warfare. In Proceedings of the 8th European Conference on Information Warfare and Security, ECIW 2009, 6-7 July, Lisbon, Portugal. Reading: Academic Publishing Limited, pp 192-197.