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A Systematic Framework For Analyzing the Security and Privacy of Cellular Networks

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posted on 16.01.2020, 18:53 by Syed Rafiul Hussain
Cellular networks are an indispensable part of a nation's critical infrastructure. They not only support functionality that are critical for our society as a whole (e.g., business, public-safety message dissemination) but also positively impact us at a more personal level by enabling applications that often improve our quality of life (e.g., navigation). Due to deployment constraints and backward compatibility issues, the various cellular protocol versions were not designed and deployed with a strong security and privacy focus. Because of their ubiquitous presence for connecting billions of users and use for critical applications, cellular networks are, however, lucrative attack targets of motivated and resourceful adversaries.

In this dissertation, we investigate the security and privacy of 4G LTE and 5G protocol designs and deployments. More precisely, we systematically identify design weaknesses and implementation oversights affecting the critical operations of the networks, and also design countermeasures to mitigate the identified vulnerabilities and attacks. Towards this goal, we developed a systematic model-based testing framework called LTEInspector. LTEInspector can be used to not only identify protocol design weaknesses but also deployment oversights. LTEInspector leverages the combined reasoning capabilities of a symbolic model checker and a cryptographic protocol verifier by combining them in a lazy fashion. We instantiated \system with three critical procedures (i.e., attach, detach, and paging) of 4G LTE. Our analysis uncovered 10 new exploitable vulnerabilities along with 9 prior attacks of 4G LTE all of which have been verified in a real testbed. Since identifying all classes of attacks with a unique framework like \system is nearly impossible, we show that it is possible to identify sophisticated security and privacy attacks by devising techniques specifically tailored for a particular protocol and by leveraging the findings of LTEInspector. As a case study, we analyzed the paging protocol of 4G LTE and the current version of 5G, and observed that by leveraging the findings from LTEInspector and other side-channel information and by using a probabilistic reasoning technique it is possible to mount sophisticated privacy attacks that can expose a victim device's coarse-grained location information and sensitive identifiers when the adversary is equipped only with the victim's phone number or other soft-identity (e.g., social networking profile). An analysis of LTEInspector's findings shows that the absence of broadcast authentication enables an adversary to mount a wide plethora of security and privacy attacks. We thus develop an attack-agnostic generic countermeasure that provides broadcast authentication without violating any common-sense deployment constraints. Finally, we design a practical countermeasure for mitigating the side-channel attacks in the paging procedure without breaking the backward compatibility.


Degree Type

Doctor of Philosophy


Computer Science

Campus location

West Lafayette

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair

Elisa Bertino

Additional Committee Member 2

Sonia Fahmy

Additional Committee Member 3

Ninghui Li

Additional Committee Member 4

Mike Atallah

Additional Committee Member 5

Omar Chowdhury



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