Petter Reinholdtsen

Visualizing GSM radio chatter using gr-gsm and Hopglass
29th September 2017

Every mobile phone announce its existence over radio to the nearby mobile cell towers. And this radio chatter is available for anyone with a radio receiver capable of receiving them. Details about the mobile phones with very good accuracy is of course collected by the phone companies, but this is not the topic of this blog post. The mobile phone radio chatter make it possible to figure out when a cell phone is nearby, as it include the SIM card ID (IMSI). By paying attention over time, one can see when a phone arrive and when it leave an area. I believe it would be nice to make this information more available to the general public, to make more people aware of how their phones are announcing their whereabouts to anyone that care to listen.

I am very happy to report that we managed to get something visualizing this information up and running for Oslo Skaperfestival 2017 (Oslo Makers Festival) taking place today and tomorrow at Deichmanske library. The solution is based on the simple recipe for listening to GSM chatter I posted a few days ago, and will show up at the stand of Ă…pen Sone from the Computer Science department of the University of Oslo. The presentation will show the nearby mobile phones (aka IMSIs) as dots in a web browser graph, with lines to the dot representing mobile base station it is talking to. It was working in the lab yesterday, and was moved into place this morning.

We set up a fairly powerful desktop machine using Debian Buster/Testing with several (five, I believe) RTL2838 DVB-T receivers connected and visualize the visible cell phone towers using an English version of Hopglass. A fairly powerfull machine is needed as the grgsm_livemon_headless processes from gr-gsm converting the radio signal to data packages is quite CPU intensive.

The frequencies to listen to, are identified using a slightly patched scan-and-livemon (to set the --args values for each receiver), and the Hopglass data is generated using the patches in my meshviewer-output branch. For some reason we could not get more than four SDRs working. There is also a geographical map trying to show the location of the base stations, but I believe their coordinates are hardcoded to some random location in Germany, I believe. The code should be replaced with code to look up location in a text file, a sqlite database or one of the online databases mentioned in the github issue for the topic.

If this sound interesting, visit the stand at the festival!

Tags: debian, english, personvern, surveillance.

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