Leaking Beeps: IT Systems Broadcasting Sensitive Info

In our previous installments of the Leaking Beeps research series, we have discussed that both healthcare and industrial control systems have been sending clear text messages via the pager communications protocols POCSAG and FLEX. We were surprised to see pages containing sensitive patient information when we looked into the use of pagers in the healthcare sector. We were just as alarmed to see the number of automation systems in industrial environments that were utilizing POCSAG and FLEX as wireless communications paths. This gave a lot of information away to a potential attacker who could use them in a future attack.

During the course of this research, yet again, we saw IT-based systems that sent vital information to a company’s infrastructure in clear text. This includes systems that sent out a page to record who was calling employees within the company. Since this was sent in clear text and can be observed over long distances, an attacker could gather phone numbers, employee names, and in some cases the email addresses of potential high-profile targets.

In this day and age so many companies try to hide their phone directory from the internet as well as the schema for their company email addresses. However, this effort is diluted by this older technology still in use, since attackers can sniff pager communications where these contact information can be found anyway.

Sample page seen with personal info redacted

As a kid I remember going around my father’s office seeing IT people carrying pagers for alerts and for on-call purposes. When I started working in IT, I would still see some pagers being carried around, but I felt that it was just some of the older IT people who were used to having pagers as the mechanism for call-out. Over time this stopped as cellphones became more popular. When we started our research, it didn’t occur to me that we would see messages coming from IT-based systems. For instance, syslog messages from servers or from Network Intrusion Detection Systems:

Sample page containing server-related messages

 In some cases, IT systems may be utilized to send out more personal information that people thought was private. In Leaking Beeps: A Closer Look at IT Systems That Leak Pages we discuss SMS-to-pager gateways that were observed sending people’s private conversations from SMS messages to a pager. These SMS-to-pager gateways sent what would normally be encrypted messages in clear text. We were alarmed by what we saw. We are sure that if people knew that their messages were being sent in the clear they would not want to be using these SMS-to-pager systems.

The more we dove into this, the more apparent it became that pager technologies are still being used all around the globe for multiple reasons in different sectors. This is something that should ultimately stop—sooner rather than later. Information Security professionals have worked hard to prevent information leakage in many different ways. But it is clear that pagers are either overlooked or ignored during these phases of security.

Going forward, Information Security professionals should take a look at these messages, and see if they are something that should be sent in clear text. If not, then another communications path should be used to avoid information leakage of sensitive and private information.

For more about what we found, read our third installment of our Leaking Beeps series, Leaking Beeps: A Closer Look at IT Systems That Leak Pages.

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