Actress Phone Scandal Raises Mobile Privacy Fears

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Thursday, January 22nd, 2009
Jeon Ji-hyun

Jeon Ji-hyun, popular commercial actress in South Korea (image source - Mnet's public web site)

Jeon Ji-hyun, Korean actress, has been the star of a real-life drama for the past few months.  Police investigation has revealed that Jung Hoon-tak, CEO of Sidus HQ and agent for the actress, specifically asked an unnamed accomplice to duplicate Ms. Jeon’s mobile phone.  The Seoul National Police Agency detained Mr. Kim with the accusation that he violated the Telecommunications Privacy Law.

According to the prosecution, CEO Jung inspected Jeon Ji-hyun's text messages about 10 times from the 21st of November 2007 to the 26th. The police commenced the investigation last October. The authorities plan to recall CEO Jung and ask more questions on the 28th or 29th of January.

Duplicated phones were originally created simply to be sold illegally for a cheaper price, but recently they have also been intentionally created for eavesdropping on or tracing the location of the owners.  According to data from Lee Jeong-hyun, the congressman of the Committee on Culture, Sports, Tourism, Broadcasting, and Communications, the number of disclosed cases of illegal reproduction was up to 7,916 cases in 2007. It had also reached 4,021 cases in the first half of last year, not on the decrease at all.

A reproduced phone means a new CDMA mobile phone is registered using a copied electronic serial number (ESN) from another phone. ESN is the particular number given by mobile phone companies to manage their customer’s mobile phones. The ESN is used to manage users, route calls, and charge fees. Usually, people steal one or more ESNs from telecommunication companies or agencies to reproduce phones illegally.  Operative law regulates all the actions to give and receive ESNs; to use a duplicated phone or request duplication is illegal and should be punished. 

Mobile phones with third generation WCDMA substitute personal authentication keys (USIMs) for ESN.  In contrast to 2G CDMA, the USIM of 3rd generation WCDMA phones is impossible to copy, according to telecommunication providers.  However, while there are already 17 million 3G subscribers, the other 26 million subscribers are still using the 2G service and are still technically exposed to unauthorized duplication. To fix this vulnerability, telecommunication companies adopted a service to authenticate sending and receiving calls to one handset only.  When a user powers on their phone, the base station detects it as the original phone and only communicates with the original.  However, there is still the vulnerability that if the illegal duplicated phone is powered on while the original phone is off, the base station considers it to be the original phone.  And, when both phones are powered on at the same time, the second phone to power on can still check the text messages and the call history of the first phone.

Those mobile phone users who suspect that their phones are duplicated can perform a simple test to make sure.  First, they should power off their mobile phone, and then call their number from another line.  The operator should come on the line and say that the mobile phone is turned off and unavailable.  However, if there is still ringing, it means that the duplicate phone is accepting the call.  If that is the case, mobile phone users should immediately call the customer service center of their telecommunications provider to report a duplicated phone.

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