Every mobile phone runs two operating systems; the one you interact with (like Android or Ios), and the one that controls the radio hardware. This second OS is ancient, creaking, and wildly insecure. Security researcher Ralf-Philipp Weinmann of the University of Luxembourg presented work on reverse-engineering the most popular "baseband" OSes from Qualcomm and Infineon and the horrifying security vulnerabilities he found. Anyone operating a cellular base-station (you can buy 'em on Ebay or build them from open source hardware specs) can send a 73-byte message that lets them run raw code on the processor; can silently activate auto-answer, crash the device, brick devices, install rootkits, send SMSes to premium numbers, and more.
You can do some crazy things with these exploits. For instance, you can turn on auto-answer, using the Hayes command set. This is a command language for modems designed in 1981, and it still works on modern baseband processors found in smartphones today (!). The auto-answer can be made silent and invisible, too.
While we can sort-of assume that the base stations in cell towers operated by large carriers are "safe", the fact of the matter is that base stations are becoming a lot cheaper, and are being sold on eBay - and there are even open source base station software packages. Such base stations can be used to target phones. Put a compromised base station in a crowded area - or even a financial district or some other sensitive area - and you can remotely turn on microphones, cameras, place rootkits, place calls/send SMS messages to expensive numbers, and so on. Yes, you can even brick phones permanently.
* The second operating system hiding in every mobile phone [Thom Holwerda/OS News]
If you think that your phone may have been hacked so that your adversaries can watch you through the cameras and listen through the mics, one way to solve the problem is to remove the cameras and microphones, and only use the phone with a headset that you unplug when it’s not in use.
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