Rare attack on cellular protocol exploits an encryption-implementation flaw at base stations to record voice calls.
Researchers have discovered an attack on the Voice over LTE (VoLTE) mobile communications protocol that can break its encryption and allow attackers to listen in on phone calls.
Dubbed ReVoLTE, the attack — detailed by a group of academic researchers from Ruhr University Bochum and New York University Abu Dhabi — exploits an implementation flaw in the LTE cellular protocol that exists at the level of a mobile base station. ReVoLTE makes use of a predictable keystream reuse, a scenario in encryption in which stream ciphers, or encryption keys, are vulnerable to attack if the same key is used in a predictable fashion.can allow threat actors to recover the contents of an encrypted VoLTE call.
“Eventually, the keystream reuse allows an adversary to decrypt a recorded call with minimal resources,” researchers David Rupprecht, Katharina Kohls, Thorsten Holz and Christina Pöpper wrote, in a paper detailing the attack.”
The attack is novel in that standard cellular protocols typically aren’t targeted for hacking because researchers “never have the energy to deal with” the legwork involved of untangling the pages of documentation about the standard itself, according to cryptographer and Johns Hopkins University Professor Matthew Green.
“Moreover, implementing the attacks requires researchers to mess with gnarly radio protocols,” he wrote in a blog post about the research. “And so, serious cryptographic vulnerabilities can spread all over the world, presumably only exploited by governments, before a researcher actually takes a look at them.”
Every now and then, however, there’s an exception, and ReVoLTE is one of them, he said.
How ReVoLTE Works
The attack leverages the use of encryption at the mobile cell tower, by sniffing the encrypted radio traffic of a call someone makes within the cell of a base station that uses vulnerable encryption methods, researchers wrote.
Shortly after this attack, the attacker can call the person who made the call that was compromised, and engage him or her in conversation. This allows the attack to sniff the encrypted radio traffic of that phone call, and record the unencrypted sound. The call needs to be made using the same base station that has vulnerable encryption, researchers noted.
The attacker can then compare the two calls and break the encryption, which allows them to recover the previous conversation between the victim and another person. However, the attacker needs to keep the victim on the phone for as long as the length of a targeted call if the entire conversation is to be decrypted, researchers noted.
“The longer he/she talked to the victim, the more content of the previous communication he/she can decrypt,” they wrote. “For example, if the attacker and victim spoke for five minutes, the attacker could later decode five minutes of the previous conversation.”
Researchers said they conducted real-world tests of the method on carrier base stations and found that it affects multiple mobile operators. They have notified the carriers of the vulnerability through the Coordinated Vulnerability Disclosure Program of the GSM Association (GSMA), which oversees and maintains global telephony standards.
“By the time of publication, those vendors should have provided patches, and providers are requested to install and configure them securely,” researchers noted, adding that they tested German mobile operators who installed the patch to ensure the fix functions properly.
However, given the “large number of providers worldwide and their large deployments,” the team hopes to raise awareness of the vulnerability so the issue can be resolved globally, researchers added.
Attack of the week: Voice calls in LTE
by Matthew Green: I’m a cryptographer and professor at Johns Hopkins University. I’ve designed and analyzed cryptographic systems used in wireless networks, payment systems and digital content protection platforms. In my research I look at the various ways cryptography can be used to promote user privacy.
I haven’t written an “attack of the week” post in a while, and it’s been bumming me out. This is not because there’s been a lack of attacks, but mostly because there hasn’t been an attack on something sufficiently widely-used that it can rouse me out of my blogging torpor.
But today brings a beautiful attack called ReVoLTE, on a set of protocols that I particularly love to see get broken: namely, cellular protocols. And specifically, the (voice over) LTE standards. I’m excited about these particular protocols — and this new attack — because it’s so rare to see actual cellular protocols and implementations get broken. This is mostly because these standards are developed in smoke-filled rooms and written up in 12,000 page documents that researchers never have the energy to deal with. Moreover, implementing the attacks requires researchers to mess with gnarly radio protocols.
And so, serious cryptographic vulnerabilities can spread all over the world, presumably only exploited by governments, before a researcher actually takes a look at them. But every now and then there’s an exception, and today’s attack is one of them.
The attack itself is by David Rupprecht, Katharina Kohls, Thorsten Holz, and Christina Pöpper at RUB and NYU Abu Dhabi. It’s a lovely key re-installation attack on a voice protocol that you’re probably already using, assuming you’re one of the older generation who still make phone calls using a cellular phone.
Let’s start with some background.
What is LTE, and what is VoLTE?
The basis for our modern cellular telephony standards began in Europe back in the 1980s, with a standard known as Global System for Mobile. GSM was the first major digital cellular telephony standard, and it introduced a number of revolutionary features such as the use of encryption to protect phone calls. Early GSM was designed primarily for voice communications, although data could be sent over the air at some expense.
As data became more central to cellular communications, the Long Term Evolution (LTE) standards were devised to streamline this type of communication. LTE builds on a group of older standards such as GSM, EDGE and HSPA to make data communication much faster. There’s a lot of branding and misbranding in this area, but the TL;DR is that LTE is a data communications system that serves as a bridge between older packet data protocols and future 5G cellular data technologies.
Of course, history tells us that once you have enough (IP) bandwidth, concepts like “voice” and “data” start to blur together. The same is true with modern cellular protocols. To make this transition smoother, the LTE standards define Voice-over-LTE (VoLTE), which is an IP-based standard for transmitting voice calls directly over the data plane of the LTE system, bypassing the circuit-switched portion of the cellular network entirely. As with standard VoIP calls, VoLTE calls can be terminated by the cellular provider and connected to the normal phone network. Or (as is increasingly common) they can be routed directly from one cellular customer to another, even across providers.
Like standard VoIP, VoLTE is based on two popular IP-based protocols: Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) for call establishment, and Real Time Transport Protocol (which should be called RTTP but is actually called RTP) to actually handle voice data. VoLTE also adds some additional bandwidth optimizations, such as header compression.
Ok, what does this have to do with encryption?
Like GSM before it, LTE has a standard set of cryptographic protocols for encrypting packets while they travel over the air. These are mainly designed to protect your data while it travels between your handset (called the “User Equipment”, or UE) and the cellular tower (or wherever your provider decides to terminate the connection.) This is because cellular providers view outside eavesdroppers as the enemy, not themselves. Obviously.
(However, the fact that VoLTE connections can occur directly between customers on different provider networks does mean that the VoLTE protocol itself has some additional and optional encryption protocols that can happen at higher network layers. These aren’t relevant to the current paper except insofar as they could screw things up. We’ll talk about them briefly further below.)
Historical GSM encryption had many weaknesses: bad ciphers, protocols where only the handset authenticated itself to the tower (meaning an attacker could impersonate a tower, giving rise to the “Stingray“) and so on. LTE fixed many of the obvious bugs, while keeping a lot of the same structure.
Let’s start with the encryption itself. Assuming key establishment has already happened — and we’ll talk about that in just a minute — each data packet is encrypted using a stream cipher mode using some cipher called “EEA” (which in practice can be implemented with things like AES). The encryption mechanism is basically CTR-mode, as shown below:
Since the encryption algorithm itself (EEA) can be implemented using a strong cipher like AES, it’s unlikely that there’s any direct attack on the cipher itself, as there was back in the GSM days. However, even with a strong cipher, it’s obvious that this encryption scheme is a giant footgun waiting to go off.
Specifically: the LTE standard uses an (unauthenticated) stream cipher with a mode that will be devastatingly vulnerable should the counter — and other inputs, such as ‘bearer’ and ‘direction’ — ever be re-used. In modern parlance the term for this concept is “nonce re-use attack“, but the potential risks here are not modern. They’re well-known and ancient, going back to the days of hair-metal and even disco.
In fairness, the LTE standards says “don’t re-use these counters, please“. But the LTE standards are also like 7,000 pages long, and anyway, this is like begging toddlers not to play with a gun. Inevitably, they’re going to do that and terrible things will happen. In this case, the discharging gun is a keystream re-use attack in which two different confidential messages get XORed with the same keystream bytes. This is known to be utterly devastating for message confidentiality.
So what’s ReVoLTE?
The ReVoLTE attack paper points out that, indeed, this highly vulnerable encryption construction is in fact, misused by real equipment in the wild. Specifically, the authors analyze actual VoLTE calls made using commercial equipment, and show that they can exploit something called a “key re-installation attack”. (Much credit for the basic observation goes to Raza and Lu, who first pointed out the potential vulnerability. But the ReVoLTE research turns it into a practical attack.)
Let me give a quick overview of the attack here, although you should really read the paper.
You might assume that once LTE sets up a packet data connection, voice-over-LTE is just a question of routing voice packets over that connection alongside all of your other data traffic. In other words, VoLTE would be a concept that exists only above Layer 2. This isn’t precisely the case.
In fact, LTE’s data link layer introduces the concept of a “bearer“. Bearers are separate session identifiers that differentiate various kinds of packet traffic. Normal Internet traffic (your Twitter and Snapchat) goes over one bearer. SIP signalling for VoIP goes over another, and voice traffic packets are handled on a third. I don’t have much insight into the RF and network routing mechanisms of LTE, but I presume this is done because LTE networks want to enable quality of service mechanisms to ensure that these different packet flows are treated with different priority levels: i.e., your crummy TCP connections to Facebook can be prioritized at a lower level than your real-time voice calls.
This isn’t exactly a problem, but it raises an issue. Keys for LTE encryption are derived separately each time a new “bearer” is set up. In principle this should happen afresh each time you make a new phone call. This would result in a different encryption key for each call, thus eliminating the possibility that the same key will be re-used to encrypt two different sets of call packets. Indeed, the LTE standard says something like “you should use a different key each time you set up a new bearer to handle a new phone call.” But that doesn’t mean it happens.
In fact, in real implementations, two different calls that happen in close temporal proximity will end up using the exact same key — despite the fact that new (identically-named) bearers are configured between them. The only practical change that happens between those calls is that the encryption counter will reset back to zero. In the literature, this is sometimes called a key reinstallation attack. One can argue that this is basically an implementation error, although in this case the risks seem largely set up by the standard itself.
In practice, this attack leads to keystream re-use where an attacker can obtain the encrypted packets and , which allows her to compute . Even better, if the attacker knows one of or , she can immediately recover the other. This gives her a strong incentive to know one of the two plaintexts.
This brings us to the complete and most powerful attack scenario. Consider an attacker who can eavesdrop the radio connection between a target phone and the cellular tower, and who somehow gets “lucky enough” to record two different calls where the second happens immediately subsequent to the other. Now imagine she can somehow can guess the plaintext contents of one of the calls. In this eventuality, our attacker can completely decrypt the first call, using a simple XOR evaluation between the two sets of packets.
And of course, as it happens — luck has nothing to do with it. Since phones are designed to receive calls, an attacker who can eavesdrop that first call will be able to initiate a second call at exactly moment the first call ends. This second call, should it re-use the same encryption key with a counter set back to zero, will enable plaintext recovery. Even better, since our attacker actually controls the data in the second call, she may be able to recover the contents of the first one — pending a whole lot of implementation-specific details all breaking in her favor.
Here’s a picture of the overall attack, taken from the paper:
So does the attack actually work?
At one level, this is really the entire question for the ReVoLTE paper. All of the ideas above sound great in theory, but they leave a ton of questions. Such as:
- Is it feasible for (academic researchers) to actually sniff VoLTE connections?
- Do real LTE systems actually re-install keys?
- Can you actually initiate that second call quickly and reliably enough to make a handset and tower re-use a key?
- Even if systems do re-install keys, can you actually know the digital plaintext of the second call — given that things like codecs and transcoding may totally change the (bitwise) contents of that second call, even if you have access to the “bits” flowing out of your attacker phone?
The ReVoLTE paper answers several of these questions in the affirmative. The authors are able to use a commercial software-defined radio downlink sniffer called Airscope in order to eavesdrop the downlink side of a VoLTE call. (As is typical with academic research, I expect that simply getting hold of the software and figuring out how to work it took months off some poor graduate students’ lives.)
In order for key re-use to happen, the researchers discovered that a second call has to occur very rapidly after the termination of the first one, but not too rapidly — about ten seconds for the providers they experimented with. Fortunately, it doesn’t really matter if the target picks the call up within that time — the “ringing”, i.e., SIP communication itself causes the provider to re-use the same key.
Many of the gnarliest issues thus revolve around issue (4), obtaining all of the plaintext bits for the attacker-initiated call. This is because a lot of things can happen to your plaintext as it travels from your attacker handset out to the victim’s phone and through the cellular network. These include nastiness such as transcoding of encoded audio data, which makes the audio sound the same but totally changes the binary representation of the audio. LTE networks also use RTP header compression that can substantially change big portions of the RTP packet.
Finally, packets sent by the attacker need to roughly line up with packets that happened in the first phone call. This can be problematic, as silent patches in a phone call result in shorter messages (called comfort noise), which may not overlap well with the original call.
The “real world attack” section of the paper is worth reading for all the details. It addresses many of the above concerns — specifically, the authors find that some codecs are not transcoded, and that roughly 89% of the binary representation of the target call can be recovered, for at least two European providers that the attackers tested.
This is an astonishingly high level of success, and frankly much better than I anticipated when I started the paper.
So what can we do to fix this?
The immediate answer to this question is straightforward: since the vulnerability is a key re-use (re-installation) attack, just fix this attack. Make sure to derive a new key for each phone call, and never allow your packet counter to reset back to zero with the same key. Problem solved!
Or maybe not. Getting this right will require upgrading a lot of equipment, and frankly the fix itself isn’t terribly robust. It would be nice if standards could find a cleaner way to implement their encryption modes that isn’t instantly and catastrophically vulnerable to these nonce-reuse issues.
One possible direction is to use modes of encryption where nonce-misuse doesn’t result in catastrophic outcomes. This might be too expensive for some current hardware, but it’s certainly a direction that designers should be thinking about for the future, particular as the 5G standards are about to take over the world.
This new result also raises a general question about why the same damned attacks keep cropping up in standard after standard, many of which use very similar designs and protocols. At a certain point when you’ve had this same key re-installation issue happen in multiple widely-deployed protocols such as WPA2, maybe it’s time to make your specifications and testing procedures more robust to it? Stop treating implementers as thoughtful partners who will pay attention to your warnings, and treat them as (inadvertent) adversaries who are inevitably going to implement everything incorrectly.
Or alternatively, we can do what the Facebooks and Apples of the world are increasingly doing: make voice call encryption happen at a higher level of the OSI network stack, without relying on cellular equipment manufacturers to get anything right. We could even promote end-to-end encryption of voice calls, as WhatsApp and Signal and FaceTime do, assuming the US government would just stop trying to trip us up. Then (with the exception of some metadata) many of these problems would go away. This solution is particularly pertinent in a world where governments aren’t even sure if they trust their equipment providers.
Alternatively, we could just do what our kids have already done: and just stop answering those annoying voice calls altogether.