China is suspected of tapping into Americans’ cell phones through Caribbean mobile phone networks as part of its espionage efforts in the US, according to a report on Tuesday.
The Communist Party-run country exploited vulnerabilities in the global telecommunications network to target, track and intercept phone communications of US phone subscribers traveling abroad, The Guardian reported, citing an analysis by Gary Miller, a Washington state-based former mobile network security executive.
An examination of signaling messages between foreign and US mobile operators appears to show that China is using networks in the Caribbean to monitor the phone calls, the report said.
Telecommunications companies send signaling messages across the global network that allow operators to locate mobile phone, connect callers to one another and assess roaming charges.
But China, working through a state-controlled mobile phone operator, is using the commands to track, monitor or intercept communications.
Miller told the newspaper that US mobile phone operators can block China’s attempts, but have not gone far enough to protect users, who unaware of how insecure their communications are.
He said he was sharing his analysis with the Guardian to shed light on the “severity of this activity” and to encourage tougher measures be imposed to counter China.
“Government agencies and Congress have been aware of public mobile network vulnerabilities for years,” Miller told the publication. “Security recommendations made by our government have not been followed and are not sufficient to stop attackers.”
“No one in the industry wants the public to know the severity of ongoing surveillance attacks. I want the public to know about it,” he added.
He said his analysis shows that China carried out the highest number of apparent surveillance actions in 2018, targeting US mobile phone users over 3G and 4G networks through state-owned China Unicom.
In all, tens of thousands of phone users were affected by the attacks between 2018 and 2020,
“Once you get into the tens of thousands, the attacks qualify as mass surveillance, which is primarily for intelligence collection and not necessarily targeting high-profile targets. It might be that there are locations of interest, and these occur primarily while people are abroad,” Miller said.
The Federal Communications Commission issued a warning in April that it might shut down the US operations of China Unicom, and the agency’s chairman, Ajit Pai, said the agency was concerned about the company’s vulnerability to the Chinese Communist Party.