Long-Term Evolution (LTE) network which is also commonly referred to as 4G may not be as wide spread around the globe as 3G is but it is the next gen network and in the near future, set to replace all existing 2G and 3G connections in all major cities around the globe. Ericsson, one of the largest providers of LTE infrastructure in the world estimates that half of the world’s population will have LTE connectivity by the year 2017. Since every smartphone launched today comes with 4G network support that figure could be easily reached. So, it’s pretty clear that the future is a world totally dependent on LTE.
Now a research group from Virginia Tech discovered that LTE technology is extremely vulnerable to jamming tools that can be be built at home for the cost of a top specification iPad. All that is required is technical know-how about how LTE technology works, a laptop and a signal transmitter. Total cost: about $650. Scale of damage: Easily an LTE base station that caters to thousands of people and businesses.
As far as the technical knowledge goes these standards are published openly, unlike military standards and anyone with the basic knowledge about how these things work can figure it out.
“Picture a jammer that fits in a small briefcase that takes out miles of LTE signals—whether commercial or public safety,” says Jeff Reed, director of the wireless research group at Virginia Tech. The research group has submitted its findings to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.
Basically, any radio signal can be jammed or taken out of service by sending out a signal against it of the same frequency. Using a signal amplifier would further strengthen the jamming signal, which could then affect a large area. While all networks are vulnerable to such attacks including 2G and 3G, what makes LTE particularly more susceptible to jamming signals is the way in which time synchronization and frequency synchronization happen between handsets and the LTE base station. “Your phone is constantly syncing with the base station” to transfer and receive data, says Lichtman, a graduate research assistant who was part of the research group. “If you can disrupt that synchronization, you will not be able to send or receive data.”
The research team has unearthed eight signal vulnerabilities, each targeting a subsystem. Take out a single subsystem and the whole network collapses.