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Paging 1994: Crap encryption still rife in devices

Switch to asymmetric keys, stat!

By John Leyden, 25 Oct 2016

Pager communications in industrial environments often run over unencrypted channels, creating a hacker risk in the process.

Industries such as energy, manufacturing, and transportation still make extensive use of pager technologies that have been superseded in other sectors of the economy. Researchers at Trend Micro warn that criminals might easily monitor the unencrypted pager data being sent by companies using a only a $20 dongle and some software defined radio know-how, as a blog post by Trend Micro explains.

Our analysis of unencrypted pager messages in countries like the US and Canada revealed that critical infrastructure sectors like nuclear power plants, substations, power generation plants, chemical plants, defense contractors, and other industrial environments like semiconductor and commercial manufacturers, and heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) companies are still using pagers to this day.

Unfortunately, we discovered that communication through pagers is not secure at all. Since pager messages are typically unencrypted, attackers can view pager messages even at a distance—the only thing attackers need is a combination of some know-how on software-defined radio (SDR) and US$20 for a dongle.

Data gathered can include email addresses, project codes, and employee names, excellent fodder for subsequent (highly targeted) social engineering attacks. Alarm/event notifications (on leaks, mechanical failures, deviations, etc.), diagnostic information and information on ICS or SCADA devices and network configurations are also leaked through the insecure channel.

Organisations that are still using pagers are advised to switch to an encrypted paging system with asymmetric keys, Trend Micro recommends. More details can be found in a white paper entitled Leaking Beeps: Unencrypted Pager Messages in the Healthcare Industry by Trend Micro here (pdf).

Previous research by Trend Micro addressed the related problems posed by unencrypted pager comms in healthcare. ®

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