The structure of a GSM network

Network structure

The structure of a GSM network

The network is structured into a number of discrete sections:

[edit] Subscriber Identity Module (SIM)

One of the key features of GSM is the Subscriber Identity Module, commonly known as a SIM card. The SIM is a detachable smart card containing the user’s subscription information and phone book. This allows the user to retain his or her information after switching handsets. Alternatively, the user can also change operators while retaining the handset simply by changing the SIM. Some operators will block this by allowing the phone to use only a single SIM, or only a SIM issued by them; this practice is known as SIM locking.

[edit] Phone locking

Main article: SIM lock

Sometimes mobile network operators restrict handsets that they sell for use with their own network. This is called locking and is implemented by a software feature of the phone. Because the purchase price of the mobile phone to the consumer is typically subsidized with revenue from subscriptions, operators must recoup this investment before a subscriber terminates service. A subscriber may usually contact the provider to remove the lock for a fee, utilize private services to remove the lock, or make use of free or fee-based software and websites to unlock the handset themselves.

In some territories (e.g., Bangladesh, Hong Kong, India, Malaysia, Pakistan, Singapore) all phones are sold unlocked. In others (e.g., Finland, Singapore) it is unlawful for operators to offer any form of subsidy on a phone’s price.[9]

[edit] GSM service security

See also: UMTS security

GSM was designed with a moderate level of service security. The system was designed to authenticate the subscriber using a pre-shared key and challenge-response. Communications between the subscriber and the base station can be encrypted. The development of UMTS introduces an optional Universal Subscriber Identity Module (USIM), that uses a longer authentication key to give greater security, as well as mutually authenticating the network and the user – whereas GSM only authenticates the user to the network (and not vice versa). The security model therefore offers confidentiality and authentication, but limited authorization capabilities, and no non-repudiation.

GSM uses several cryptographic algorithms for security. The A5/1 and A5/2 stream ciphers are used for ensuring over-the-air voice privacy. A5/1 was developed first and is a stronger algorithm used within Europe and the United States; A5/2 is weaker and used in other countries. Serious weaknesses have been found in both algorithms: it is possible to break A5/2 in real-time with a ciphertext-only attack, and in February 2008, Pico Computing, Inc revealed its ability and plans to commercialize FPGAs that allow A5/1 to be broken with a rainbow table attack.[10] The system supports multiple algorithms so operators may replace that cipher with a stronger one.

On 28 December 2009 German computer engineer Karsten Nohl announced that he had cracked the A5/1 cipher.[11] According to Nohl, he developed a number of rainbow tables (static values which reduce the time needed to carry out an attack) and have found new sources for known plaintext attacks. He also said that it is possible to build “a full GSM interceptor … from open source components” but that they had not done so because of legal concerns.[12]

In January 2010, threatpost.com reported that researchers had developed a new attack that had “broken Kasumi” (also known as A5/3), the standard encryption algorithm used to secure traffic on 3G GSM wireless networks, by means of a sandwich attack (a type of related-key attack), allowing them to identify a full key. It reported experts as saying that this “is not the end of the world for Kasumi.”[13] (Paper[14]) The researchers noted that their attack failed on its predecessor algorithm MISTY1, and observed that the GSM Association‘s change of standard from MISTY to KASUMI resulted in a “much weaker cryptosystem”. This was followed between December 2010 and April 2011 by an announcement from other researchers that they had reverse engineered the GSM encryption algorithms, and demonstrated software capable of real-time interception of GSM voice calls.[15][16]

New attacks have been observed that take advantage of poor security implementations, architecture and development for smart phone applications. Some wiretapping and eavesdropping techniques hijack[17] the audio input and output providing an opportunity for a 3rd party to listen in to the conversation. At present such attacks often come in the form of a Trojan, malware or a virus and might be detected by security software.[citation needed][original research?]

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