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Security Risks of Mobile Communications in Africa

03 March, 2014

Source: ICT Africa

Kihara Kimachia

It is no secret that there is a mobile revolution in Africa. Despite the low access to reliable basic services, Africa has leapfrogged into the digital age. Unfortunately, with phenomenal growth comes great challenges. Security is one of the greatest challenges to the growth of mobile communications.

While insecure 1G networks are still in use in some places such rural United States, there are no 1G networks in Africa. By the time mobile telephony became popular in Africa, the main technology around the world was 2G. Hence, all mobile networks in Africa are digital and not susceptible to the risk faced by analog 1G networks. Communication on these networks can easily be intercepted using radio scanners. However, there are many other more serious security risks.

Privacy Of Mobile Call Records
Most African countries are only beginning to enact legislation to deal with mobile telephony. For example, what is the duty of a cellular operator with regards to safeguarding your phone call records (calls and text)? These are issues that have not been clear in the past. It is common knowledge that phone companies keep mobile phone records on their servers for some time before eventually archiving and deleting them. This data can be accessed by employees and sold or used for other nefarious purposes. Many African countries are yet to enact legislation to deal with this sensitive matter. There is an urgent need to do so to protect the integrity of their cellular communication networks.

Risk of Location Tracking Solutions
The growth in mobile phone penetration in sub-Saharan Africa over the last five years has been phenomenal. It is expected that due to the high economic growth rate and corresponding increase in per capita incomes, many Africans will own smartphones by 2018. One of the security concerns that need to be addressed is the fact that smartphones make you an easy target for stalkers.

Location tracking applications, Wi-Fi network scanning and GPS capabilities all make it easy for other people to locate you in real-time. While many in Africa are eager to acquire smartphones, few are aware of these location-reporting features. Mobile phone users are inadvertently checking-in to locations via Facebook and other apps without realizing it. Network operators make no effort to educate consumers about these features. It also is not known what the mobile phone companies intend to do with this data. No one knows whether this data is being sold to advertisers as happens in other places and there are hardly any laws in most African countries to regulate use of data collected in this way.

Cell Phone Cloning
The main mobile phone technology across Africa is GSM. However, in Ghana, Nigeria, Côte D'Ivoire, Cameroon, South Africa and Tanzania there are mobile operators that run CDMA networks. Phone cloning has been successful on CDMA networks. By gaining access to the phone's file system, a tech savvy crook can change the phone's electronic serial number or mobile equipment identifier. This makes it possible for a hacker to clone your phone and make fraudulent calls that are then billed to you. It is much more difficult to clone a GSM phone though SIM cards can also be cloned through an arduous process.

Cell Tower Spoofing
A few years ago, a security researcher at an event in Texas, demonstrated how mobile phones could be 'tricked' into routing calls through a fake cell tower. This was achieved by sending phones a signal stronger that the real towers in the area. Phones were 'instructed' to disable encryption and the hacker was then able to record phone details and content. Chris Paget, the researcher, achieved this with equipment that cost him only about $1,500. Law enforcement agencies in many countries are able to do this, but what is worrying is that it can be done on a shoestring budget. This kind of man-in-the-middle (MITM) can be mitigated by switching to 3G. Unfortunately, many network operators in Africa do not have complete 3G coverage in the territories they serve.


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