Canadian based researchers from the "Open Privacy Research Society" recently rang the alarm on Vancouver based hospitals who have been broadcasting patient data in the clear over wireless pagers for several years. These days almost all radio enthusiasts know that with a cheap RTL-SDR, or any other radio, it is possible to receive pager signals, and decode them using a program called PDW. Pager signals are completely unencrypted, so anyone can read the messages being sent, and they often contain sensitive pager data.
Open Privacy staff disclosed their findings in 2018, but after no action was taken for over a year they took their findings to a journalist.
Encryption is available for pagers, but upgrading the network and pagers to support it can be costly. Pagers are also becoming less common in the age of mobile phones, but they are still commonly used in hospitals in some countries due to their higher reliability and range.
In the past we've seen several similar stories, such as this previous post where patient data was being exposed over the pager network in Kansas City, USA. There was also an art installation in New York called Holypager, that continuously printed out all pager messages that were received with a HackRF for gallery patrons to read.
The RTL-SDR software defined radio combined with SDRSharp, and a POCSAG/Flex capable decoding application can be used to decode pager messages. With this setup you can receive pager messages from all pager users on the system. If you don't know what a pager is, since they are now uncommon, here is a brief explanation from Wikipedia:
A pager is a wireless telecommunications device that receives and displays numeric or text messages, or receives and announces voice messages.
Not many people use pagers these days with mobile phone text messaging being used more, but pagers are still popular with doctors, hospitals in general, some fire and ambulance agencies and various IT companies, as they tend to be more reliable and have greater coverage.
Privacy and Security
Obviously a lot of messages sent through pagers are plain text and contain personal data. Especially messages from hospitals. This is a concern as it is a major breach of patient privacy.
Security concerns also stem from the fact that many IT companies set up systems that forward notices of emails being received with the subject line visible, and system messages that contain IP addresses, email addresses and names, database error messages, and URLs.
We note that in most countries it is perfectly legal to receive pager messages, as they are plain text unencrypted, but it is illegal to share or act on the information received. In some countries it may be illegal to even set up a receiver. Please research and respect your local laws before attempting this project.
Here YouTube user nerdymark shows 18 minutes of pager decoding using SDRSharp, PDW and an RTL-SDR.
18 Minutes of Pager Traffic 2012 July 12 San Jose rtlsdr sdr# pdw flex
While directed at the RTL-SDR, this tutorial may also be useful for use with other software defined radios such as the Funcube dongle, Airspy and HackRF, or even traditional hardware radios with a discriminator tap.
Since pager signals are usually transmitted at a very strong power, usually almost any antenna will work to receive them, even the stock antenna that comes with the dongle. Pager frequencies differ among different countries. Usually they will be anywhere from 137 - 160 MHz, around ~450 MHz, or around 900 MHz. Check radioreference.com or Google for frequencies in your area, or just search for them manually - they are usually quite easy to spot. Pagers normally use either the POCSAG or FLEX protocols, and the signals will look on a waterfall something like the signal shown below. They also have a distinctive sound when played with NFM mode. A sound sample is also shown below.
For this tutorial, you will need to have an RTL-SDR dongle set up and working with SDRSharp. We will assume you have this much done already. If you do not, visit the Buy RTL-SDR page, and then the Quickstart guide. You will also need to have an audio piping method installed and set up. Audio piping will allow the audio from SDRSharp to be passed to a decoding program. You can use either windows stereo mix, VB-cable (free) or Virtual Audio Cable (paid with trial version).
Now, to decode the POCSAG or Flex signals, you need need to download and install a free program called PDW, which can be downloaded from this page, then follow these steps.
Open SDRSharp and set the audio piping method to the one you will use under the Audio Output drop down box and then press Play.
Tune to a pager POCSAG/Flex signal. Set the receive mode to NFM, filter bandwidth to 12500 Hz, filter order to 10, turn squelch OFF and filter audio OFF. Adjust the RF gain settings under the configure menu until good reception is achieved.
Open PDW. You may initially receive some errors upon first opening it, but they can be safely ignored. Go to Options -> Options and Click Enable Pocsag Decoding, and ensure the 512, 1200 and 2400 boxes are all checked. Also, ensure Enable Flex Decoding is enabled and that the 1600, 3200 and 6400 boxes are all checked. Press OK.
Go to Interface -> Setup. Enable the Soundcard checkbox, set the Configuration to Custom, and choose your audio piping method in the Soundcard drop down box. If you only have one audio piping method enabled in the Windows recording properties, it will automatically choose that method. Press OK.
Go to Monitor, and ensure POCSAG/FLEX is ticked.
Now, if everything is set up correctly, the pager audio from SDRSharp should be being sent to PDW. In the top right hand corner of PDW, there should be a volume gauge. You will need to adjust the volume settings in SDRSharp, and/or the Windows volume settings so that the volume meter goes up when a pager signal is sent. The percentage shown below the gauge shows the decode error rate. If you are receiving good signals the error rate should be very low and the percentage should be at or near 100%.
PagerMon is a app that records and displays all messages from MultimonNG in a nice web page.
Pager signals are generally very strong, and so almost any antenna can pick them up - even the stock antenna included with many dongle packages. However, if you live far away from the transmitter a better antenna matched to the pager frequency you want to monitor may be required.
If reception is very poor, you may get some garbled messages in the PDW window.
Since pagers can be so strong, you may actually need to reduce the RF gain to clearly discern between a real pager and an image. Reducing the gain may also help decoding if it is so strong that it begins overloading in the RF spectrum.
Sometimes setting the volume too loud can cause the pager audio signal to become distorted. Make sure you do not have the audio set too loud.
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