12/30/2008
03:58 PM
David Maynor
David Maynor
Commentary

ID Theft and Police Scanners

When asked why he robbed banks, the flamboyant criminal Willie Sutton answered, "Because that's where the money is." That's the perfect example of how the principle of Occam's razor applies to crime: the simplest solution to a problem is often the best one. With the economic downturn, high unemployment rates, and the booming business of identity fraud, would-be criminals are on the lookout for easy methods to get access to personal information. And we stumbled across one such way during a rece



When asked why he robbed banks, the flamboyant criminal Willie Sutton answered, "Because that's where the money is." That's the perfect example of how the principle of Occam's razor applies to crime: the simplest solution to a problem is often the best one. With the economic downturn, high unemployment rates, and the booming business of identity fraud, would-be criminals are on the lookout for easy methods to get access to personal information. And we stumbled across one such way during a recent penetration test involving eavesdropping on police traffic stops.We were required to keep tabs on a facility that utilizes a trunked radio system. A trip to a ham radio store netted me a GRECOM PSR-500 digital trunking scanner, and a visit to a Website called Radio Reference and some software enabled me to program the newly acquired scanner with almost every police department frequency in a three-county area. By the way, that had nothing to do with the project I was working on -- I just thought it would be interesting. But it turned out to be eye-opening.

After scanning the frequencies for a few hours, the information I was hearing during normal traffic stops set of an alarm in my subconscious. With more people shy about taking and storing Social Security Numbers, a lot of places have turned to taking alternative forms of identification, such as a driver's license number. During a typical traffic stop you are able to hear the person's name, address, car type, license plate number, driver's license number, and a variety of other information about them. In some cases, their SSN was even transmitted.

This information may be all that someone needs to steal your identity. Additional information such as a mother's maiden name can be gathered using almost any type of person search site. Keep in mind that this type of data-gathering isn't the same as bulk attackers who go after several thousand to several million IDs in a single attack. This type of harvesting is more useful as a jumping-off point for a directed, or low-key attack.

The best part of this scam is that the police are actually doing the profiling for you. A 1978 Ford Pinto with an expired registration that gets stopped by the police is not likely a prime target for a scanner-equipped criminal, but you can bet a traffic stop for a 2008 BMW M5 overheard on the scanner would be of interest to the bad guy.

In a major city, a frequency-hopping hooligan can pick up enough personal information on a Friday night to make the effort more than profitable. The obvious counter to this type of information gathering is that much like a wireless driver attack, you have to be close enough to pick up the police radio broadcast.

And in several major areas, people stream scanner output on the Web. For instance, Scan Atlanta will allow anybody to listen to a live stream of the Atlanta police dispatch channels. A quick Google search yields similar results in almost every major city in the U.S. Police departments have different procedures on how information is broadcast and retrieved, but this is nothing a determined attacker with time on their hands cannot overcome.

Keep in mind that this is not accusing police officers of taking part in identity theft. The information transmitted is done in the clear, which shocked me. In IT security, sensitive information sent in the clear has long been buried and this kind of access to personal information with little or no effort provides a ripe breeding ground for the misuse of the information.

David Maynor is CTO of Errata Security. Special to Dark Reading

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