Researchers at Virginia Tech have made a startling discovery: an entire region’s 4G LTE network can be brought down with a device that costs $650 bucks. Of course, doing so would require some expertise in communications technology, but Marc Lichtman, the research assistant on the study, said “Any communications engineer would be able to figure this stuff out.”
Mobile phones communicate with cell towers via specific radio frequencies. Of course, any radio frequency can be rendered useless by sending signals on the same frequency from a remote transmitter. According to the researchers on the project, all the gear required to bring down a city’s 4G LTE network would fit inside a standard size briefcase. What’s worse, if it’s connected to a larger, more powerful transmitter, the affected area becomes much, much larger.
So why should you care? A few reasons, actually. And no, not just your inability to scroll through your Facebook News Feed or Instagram a vintage photo of your lunch. The potential ramifications are huge.
Emergency Responder Communications
David Talbot, chief correspondent for MIT Technology Review, writes:
“LTE is also being proposed as the basis for next-generation communications systems for emergency response—a proposal called FirstNet, conceived after police and fire communications glitches added to the death toll after the September 11 terrorist attacks. In his brief to the NTIA, Reed said it was conceivable that terrorists could compromise an LTE network to confuse the response to an attack.”
Worldwide Impacts: 4G LTE is the Future of Wireless
Currently, more than 100 carriers in 94 countries operate LTE networks. It’s estimated that half of the world’s population of 7 billion people will be blanketed with LTE coverage in the next 5 years. Stop thinking about streaming YouTube videos and start thinking about major world governments, stock markets, global business and trade, law enforcement agencies, medical networks and emergency responders. If they’re all cut off because they rely on LTE networks, that would cause devastating pandemonium. The worst news? The researchers who discovered this vulnerability have no solution.
“Reed’s group did not identify whether anything could be done to fix the newly identified problem. “You have to put the problems out on the table first. Although we’ve identified the problem, we don’t necessarily have solutions,” he says. “It’s virtually impossible to bring in mitigation strategies that are also backward-compatible and cover it all.”
If such an attack – yes, let’s call it an attack – were to occur, previous generation networks – 2G and 3G – would still continue to function, as they’re not as easily affected by the same vulnerability. However, as consumers buy more 4G LTE devices and carriers bring more and more of their LTE network online, they’re going to start phasing out those legacy networks. Even in areas where they’ll still continue to operate for redundancy, they’ll be operating at a substantially lesser capacity. (And you thought Sprint’s 3G network was slow now!)
These truly are exciting times we live in.
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