The research: Mobile Internet traffic hijacking via GTP and GRX

Most users assume that mobile network access is much safer because a big mobile-telecoms provider will protect subscribers. Unfortunately, as practice shows, mobile Internet is a great opportunity for the attacker.

Positive Technologies experts have detected vulnerabilities in the infrastructure of mobile networks, allowing an attacker to intercept unencrypted GPRS traffic, spoof the data, block the Internet access, and determine the subscriber\’s location. Not only cell phones are exposed to threats, but also special devices connected to 2G/3G/4G networks via modems: ATM machines and payment terminals, remote transport and industrial equipment control systems, telemetry and monitoring tools, etc.

Operators of mobile services usually encrypt GPRS traffic between the mobile terminal (smartphone, modem) and the Serving GPRS Support Node (SGSN) using GEA-1/2/3 encryption algorithms, making it difficult to intercept and decrypt information. In order to bypass this restriction an attacker can access the operator\’s basic network where the data is not protected by authentication mechanisms. Routing nodes (or gateway nodes) called GGSN are a weak point. We can easily find the required nodes using search engine for Internet-connected systems controlling industrial equipment. Vulnerable nodes have open GTP ports which allows attackers to set up the connection and then encapsulate GTP control packets into the created tunnel.  If parameters were selected properly GGSN will take them as packets from legitimate devices within the operator\’s network.

The described above GTP protocol in no way should be seen from the Internet. In practice, however, things are often quite different: There are more than 207,000 devices with open GTP ports all over the global Internet. More than five hundred of them are components of cellular network architecture and respond to the request for a connection.

Another benefit for attackers is that GTP is not the only protocol used to manage the detected hosts. FTP, SSH, Web, etc. are also used for management purposes. An attacker can connect to the node of a mobile network operator by exploiting vulnerabilities (for example, default passwords) in these interfaces.

Experimental search through the Shodan site reveals some vulnerable devices, including ones with open Telnet and turned off password authentication. An attacker can perform an intrusion into the network of the operator in the Central African Republic by connecting to this device and implementing the required settings.

 Having access to the network of any operator, the attacker will automatically get access to the GRX network and other operators of mobile services. One single mistake made by one single operator in the world creates this opportunity for attack to many other mobile networks.

Among the various ways of using the compromised boundary host we should note the following: disconnection of subscribers from the Internet or blocking their access to the Internet; connecting to the Internet with the credentials of a legitimate user and at the expense of others; listening to the traffic of the victim and fishing attacks. An attacker can also get the subscriber\’s ID (IMSI) and monitor the subscriber\’s location worldwide until the SIM card is changed.

 Let us describe in more detail some of the security threats.

Internet at the expense of others

Goal. The exhaustion of the subscriber\’s account and use of the connection for illegal purposes.

Attack vector: An attacker conducts attacks from the GRX network or the operator\’s network.

Description. The attack is based on sending the “Create PDP context request” packets with the IMSI of a subscriber known in advance. Thus, the subscriber\’s credentials are used to establish connection. Unsuspecting subscriber will get a huge bill.

It is possible to establish connection via the IMSI of a non-existent subscriber, as subscriber authorization is performed at the stage of connecting to SGSN and GGSN receives already verified connections.  Since the SGSN is compromised, no verification is carried out.

Result. An attacker can connect to the Internet with the credentials of a legitimate user.

Data interception

Goal. To listen to the traffic of the victim and conduct a fishing attack.

Attack vector: An attacker conducts attacks from the GRX network or the operator\’s network.

Description. An attacker can intercept data sent between the subscriber\’s device and the Internet by sending an “Update PDP Context Request” message with spoofed GSN addresses to SGSN and GGSN. This attack is an analogue of the ARP Spoofing attack at the GTP level.

Result. Listening to traffic or spoofing traffic from the victim and disclosure of sensitive data.

DNS tunneling

Goal. To get non-paid access to the Internet from the subscriber\’s mobile station.

Attack vector: The attacker is the subscriber of a mobile phone network and acts through a mobile phone.

Description. This is a well-known attack vector, rooted in the days of dial-up, but the implementation of low-price and fast dedicated Internet access made it less viable.  However, this attack can be used in mobile networks, for example, in roaming when prices for mobile Internet are unreasonably high and the data transfer speed is not that important (for example, for checking email).

The point of this attack is that some operators do not rate DNS traffic, usually in order to redirect the subscriber to the operator\’s webpage for charging the balance.  An attacker can use this vulnerability by sending special crafted requests to the DNS server; to get access one needs a specialized host on the Internet.

Result. Getting non-paid access to the Internet at the expense of mobile operator.

Substitution of DNS for GGSN

Goal. To listen to the traffic of the victim and conduct a fishing attack.

Attack vector: An attacker acts through the Internet.

Description. If an attacker gets access to GGSN (which is quite possible as we could see), the DNS address can be spoofed with the attacker\’s address and all the subscriber\’s traffic will be redirected through the attacker\’s host. Thus, listening to all the mobile traffic of the subscriber is possible.

Result. An ability to listen to traffic or spoof traffic from all subscribers and then gather confidential data to engage it in fishing attacks.

Some of the attacks can not be performed if the equipment is configured properly. Still the results of the research made by Positive Technologies suggest that misconfiguration is a common problem in the telecommunications sphere. Vendors often leave some services enabled while these services should be disabled on this equipment, which gives additional opportunities to attackers.  Due to the large number of nodes it is recommended to automate the control process using specific tools such as MaxPatrol.

How to Protect Yourself

Security measures required to protect against such attacks include proper configuration of equipment, utilizing firewalls at the GRX network edge, using 3GPP TS 33.210 recommendations to configure the security settings within the PS Core network,  security monitoring of the perimeter as well as developing security compliances for the equipment and performing regular compliance management tasks.

Many people rely on new communication standards that include new safety technologies. However, despite the development of such standards (3G, 4G) we cannot completely abandon the use of old generation networks (2G).  The reason is the specifics of the implementation of mobile networks and the fact that the 2G base stations have better coverage as well as the fact that 3G networks use their infrastructure. LTE still uses the GTP protocol and therefore the necessary protection measures will be relevant in the foreseeable future.

The results of this research were gathered by Positive Technologies experts in 2013 and 2014 during consulting on security analysis for several large mobile operators.  For detailed report on Vulnerabilities of mobile Internet (GPRS), please visit Positive Technologies official site:

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