New attacks on the 4G LTE network

The 4G LTE is already the mobile network standard that is most used today, being responsible for 83.73% of coverage availability. Therefore, it is really dangerous that a group of information security training specialists have discovered important vulnerabilities in the network protocol.

A set of new cyber attacks, discovered by university information security researchers, exploit network protocol operations to spy on calls and messages, tracks a user’s location, and send fake alerts.

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One attack exploiting vulnerabilities in 4G LTE protocol operations allows a user to spoof their location, making them more difficult to track by law enforcement.

Other attacks allow a device to block access to the network or make it difficult to cover it, as well as being able to chase a user through the antennas to which they are connecting or sending false emergency alerts. For these last two it is necessary to use a malicious node for paging. Accessing this part also allows the victim’s battery to drain, constantly forcing the validation in the network.

A set of 10 new cyber attacks on 4G LTE networks can be used to spy on user calls and messages, track a user’s location, send fake alerts, or take a device completely offline, as detailed in new research from Purdue University and the University of Iowa.

The new attacks join a set of nine others that take advantage of vulnerabilities in three distinct procedures in the 4G LTE protocol known as attach, detach and paging. The information security training experts used a testing tool called LTEInspector and were able to verify eight of the 10 attacks in a real testbed. In particular, the affected protocols are 3:

  • Attach: in this procedure the device of a user is associated with the network (the first connection that is made when we turn it on).
  • Detach: the opposite process, where the user switches off the device and disconnects from the network, or the network disconnects the device (for example, due to not being able to validate it or running out of coverage)
  • Paging: part of the procedure for making a call and looking for the device in the network to acquire system information or to contact it in case of emergency.

The problem with these vulnerabilities is that they cannot be fixed in a 100% safe way without breaking the backward compatibility with old devices, explain information security training professionals. This is not only important for 4G, but that in view of the future specification of 5G, these failures should be taken into account so that they do not replicate in the following networks. The 5G standard was approved before the discovery of these vulnerabilities, so we will see if this does not mean a delay in the standard that manufacturers have already received.

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