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Non-Access-Stratum Request Attack in E-UTRAN

Da Yu Wushao Wen*
School of Software
Sun Yat-Sen University
Guangzhou, Guangdong 510006, PR China

AbstractLong Term Evolution (LTE) is the evolution of present the network architecture, protocols, and security
Universal Mobile Telecommunications System (UMTS). LTE architecture in E-UTRAN and some vulnerabilities in
revises and improves system architecture from UMTS to E-UTRAN in Section II. In section III, we describe an
provide services that are more efficient. Evolved-UTRAN illustrative attack scheme. And we will show an illustrative
(E-UTRAN) is the air interface of 3GPP and it is on the
study to demonstrate efficiency of our attack in Section IV.
upgrade path for LTE mobile networks. E-UTRAN specifies
better security architecture to protect users information. Section V is the concluding remark for this article.
However, E-UTRAN is still not perfect. This article studies
vulnerabilities of non-access-stratum (NAS) of E-UTRAN. II. E-UTRAN AND ITS VULNERABILITIES
We present illustrative attacks to exploit such vulnerabilities
and demonstrate the effectiveness and the impact of such
attacks on normal users by using our self-developed simulation
Keywords: E-UTRAN, LTE, DoS attack

The 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) has been
exploring how to meet new requirements for mobile
networks since 2004. LTE is considered as the successor of

Fig. 1 System and Security Architecture [7]
3GPPs UMTS Terrestrial Radio Access Network
(UTRAN). LTE is designed with better architecture and Fig. 1 shows system and security architecture of
new air interface system. It also includes many E-UTRAN [7]. E-UTRAN includes four kinds of entities:
improvements for faster and safer mobile network services. User Equipment (UE), Evolved Node B (eNodeB), Mobile
In LTE, the new access networks air interface is called Management Entity (MME), and Service Architecture
E-UTRAN in which many improvements were included. Evolution Gateway (SAE-GW) [3]. UEs are connected to
E-UTRAN solved most problems exposed in UTRAN. It is eNodeBs. ENodeBs are connected to one or multiple
a radio-access-network standard in LTE that will replace MMEs and SAE-GW through many-to-many S1 interfaces.
the UMTS, HSDPA and HSUPA technologies specified in ENodeBs send user plane data to SAE-GWs, which work as
3GPP releases 5 and beyond. gateway in the Internet. ENodeBs also send control-plane
In term of network security, E-UTRAN faces various data to MMEs to provide mobility management services,
threats, such as UEs tracking, false buffer-status-report, etc. such as paging, security procedure, SAE bearer
As we know, mobile networks are more fragile than wire establishment, NAS signaling confidentiality and integrity
line networks. Attackers can utilize the vulnerabilities in protection, etc. [5]. MME and SAE-GW reside in Evolved
wireless protocols to exploit signal attacks, which are more Packet Core network (EPC).
efficient and harmful than traditional network attacks. P.
Lee showed a good example illustrating this kind of attack
[1]. In that paper, attackers need very small bandwidth to
destroy the network of a big city.
In this article, we introduce efficient Denial of Service
(DoS) attacks that exploit the vulnerability in E-UTRAN.
These attacks may overload entities in E-UTRAN with
manipulated control-signals with relative limited resources.
The rest of this paper is organized as following. We will

978-1-4577-1719-2/12/$26.00 2012 IEEE 48

are distributed. Inputs and procedures to generate key are
shown in Fig.3 [7]. Keys are outlined in Table 1.

Name Usage
K Private key of UE. K should
have the highest security level.
And it is stored in USIM and
CK/IK CK (Cipher Key) and IK
(Integrity Key) are generated in
authentication procedure by K.
They should be stored in USIM
Fig. 2 Control Plane Protocol Stacks [3]
and HSS/Auc.
LTE treats security with high priority. Many security KASME KASME is calculated by
improvements were included in E-UTRAN. E-UTRAN has CK/IK in UE and MME. It is
two security layers as shown in Fig. 1. The first layer is used for generate other keys.
Access-Stratum (AS) security layer that provides access KNASint /KNASenc KNASint/KNASenc is calculated
security protection. The second layer is NAS security layer by KASME. It is used for
that protects NAS signals and interactive procedures confidentiality and integrity
between entities. We will focus on NAS security layer and protection of NAS signals.
control-plane signals in this article. KeNB KeNB is calculated by KASME
Fig. 2 shows the protocol stack of control plane in in UE and MME. It is used to
E-UTRAN. UTRAN does not have a similar protocol stack. generate keys in AS.
In E-UTRAN, NAS signals terminate in MME and UE. KRRCint/KRRCenc KRRCint/KRRCenc is calculated
NAS signals are in RRC messages between UEs and by KeNB in UE and eNodeB. It
eNodeBs. They are transmitted in S1-AP-protocol packets is used for confidentiality and
between eNodeBs and MME. Even though eNodeBs integrity protection of RRC
received packets from UEs or MME, they cannot interpret signals.
content of NAS signals. Therefore, NAS signals logically KUpenc KUpenc is calculated by KeNB
control entities such as EPS bearer management, in UE and eNodeB. It is used
authentication, etc. for encryption of user plane
Table 1: E-UTRAN keys

Fig. 3 Key architecture [7]
Security keys are important in E-UTRAN. Data of both
user plane and control plane must be protected with
confidentiality and integrity. In E-UTRAN, key generations

are protected by integrity and confidentiality mechanisms,
such as message encryption, etc. However, some RRC
messages are not protected as shown in Table 2. Resources
and efficiency consideration may be the reason of using
RRC messages without security protection. Moreever, some
messages are exchanged before the AS security procedure.
Hence, NAS Security has not yet completed and thus
CK/IK is not present. Unprotected RRC messages are
vulnerable to manipulation.
Table 2: List of some unprotected RRC messages
B. Tracking Based on C-RNTI
As D. Forsberg et. al. mentioned [8], Cell Radio Network
Temporary Identifier(C-RNTI) is used as a unique and
temporary identifier when a UE is associated with the cell.
C-RNTI is assigned by the network via RRC control signals.
Fig. 4 NAS Security Procedure It is transmitted with other scheduling information in layer
Before accessing to a network, a UE must finish the 1 in plain text. Hence, C-RNTI is readable. A passive
attachment procedure. The purpose of attachment procedure attacker can know the UEs behaviors in the cell by
is to register the UE. More specifically, the procedure associating the UEs C-RNTI and its corresponding
requests EPC to allocate resources and IP addresses for the messages without protection.
UE [7]. NAS security procedure is critical to ensure that We can illustrate a case that attackers can get the C-RNTI
both UEs and MME are reliable. Fig. 4 summarizes this easily. Fig. 5 shows the handover procedure in E-UTRAN.
procedure. In this procedure, the UE sends an Once the UE moved from one eNodeB to another, a new
RRCConnectionSetupComplete message to the eNodeB C-RNTI is assigned and transmitted in the handover
after the RRC connection has established and the RRC command message. A passive attacker can obtain new
protocol entities (the UE and the eNodeB) have finished C-RNTI in handover procedure because of the plaintext in
their configurations. This message may contain NAS layer 1, enabling him to correlate the new C-RNTI with the
signals, such as AttachRequest and old one and to track the UE over cells.
PDNConnectivityRequest. Once the MME received this
message via the eNodeB, it sends an Authentication
Information Request (AIR) [10] to HSS/Auc to get
authentication information of the UE, including UEs IMSI,
PLMN Identity, etc. [9]. When HSS/Auc receives AIR from
MME, it verifies the UE and calculates Authentication
Vectors (AVs). Authentication Information Answer (AIA)
will be sent back to MME by HSS/Auc after generating
AVs. Then, MME and UE finish the rest of the procedure
through NAS interaction. Once this procedure is completed,
NAS protection will have been set up.
3GPP has figured out some threats exposed in E-UTRAN
[2]. However, some other threats still exist. In the following,
well show some vulnerabilities that can be exploited to
launch DoS attacks easily.
A. Unprotected RRC messages
The RRC messages are considered vital for the normal
Fig.5 Handover Procedure
operation of AS in E-UTRAN [12]. Therefore, RRC signals

C. Reveal the UES IMSI message and send it to the HSS/Auc. The HSS/Auc checks
Although E-UTRAN uses Temporary Mobile Subscriber the validity of IMSIs. Moreover, the IMSIs can pass the
Identity (TMSI) to reduce transmissions of IMSI, it offers authentication test in HSS/Auc. After passing the test,
little to protect IMSI. In addition, it is necessary to transmit HSS/Auc may generate Authentication Vectors (includes
IMSI in some occasions, such as in the early stage of a RAND, XRES, CK, IK, AK) and put them into AIR and
connection establishment, HSS/VLR database crash, etc. [4]. send it back to MME. Once the MME received the AIR, the
IMSI is attractive to attackers because of its importance in MME will cache it for preventing packet loss in
many situations. There has been lots of research for transmission and generate an Authentication Request.
obtaining IMSI during a connection. M. Khan et. al. [4] Attackers use Authentication Respond message [11] to
introduced a simple scenario to obtain IMSI in E-UTRAN answer this Request. However, the generation of
as shown in Fig. 6. The attackers can impersonate as an Authentication Response has to use CK/IK as mentioned in
MME to cheat the UE. When the victim sends an section II. This is the stage that the attackers will not be
RRCConnectionSetupComplete message, it may use its authenticated. Actually, the attackers might not care about
TMSI. The attackers will ignore this message and send back the failure at all at this stage since they might have already
an IdentityRequest message. In such case, the UE has to finished their attack. They do not care to complete the
send its IMSI to attackers in plain text. Once the attackers authentication procedure. Their goal is to exhaust the
get the IMSI, they may disconnect this connection. computing resources of HSS/Auc by generating large
amount of RRCConeectionSetupComplete messages to
make HSS/Auc repeatedly calculate AVs, which is a
complicated and resource consuming procedure. To make
things worse, too many AIA and AIR messages may waste
bandwidth between the HSS/Auc and the MME. This attack
may cause DoS to new users who attempt to access the
Generally speaking, the characteristics of this kind of
attack can be listed as follows:
This attack uses control-signals, unlike traditional DoS
Fig. 6 Obtaining IMSI
This attack can be launched before the NAS security
mechanisms established. So it can easily bypass the
NAS security mechanisms;
Control-signals based attack to compromise E-UTRAN Materials needed by the attack are easy to obtain.
can be done in three phases. Attackers can get information from bottom readable
Phase 1: Attackers build a big database to collect layers or use specific cases to cheat the entities of their
C-RNTIs and track victims behaviors. Although the sensitive information;
C-RNTIs are allocated by the eNodeB dynamically, they It is not necessary for the attackers to know CK/IK. So
are used as unique indicators to identify the UEs in the cell. they dont need to finish the whole authentication
Once the UEs left the cell, the C-RNTIs become invalid. procedure. They just use parts of the procedure to
Phase 2: Attackers get victims IMSI. Using the method overload the entity;
mentioned in section II, attackers can obtain their IMSI and Lots of invalid messages may not only overload entities
save them with their corresponding C-RNTI in the database in E-UTRAN, but also congest the network.
that the attackers built in phase 1.
Phase 3: Attackers carry out active attack process as IV. ILLUSTRATIVE STUDY OF FLOODING THE
shown in Fig. 7. Attackers impersonate as other UEs to HSS/AUC
generate RRCConeectionSetupComplete messages for each
C-RNTI and IMSI using an automatic procedure and send The attack mentioned in section III is simulated
them to the MME. Even though some UEs leave the cell according to protocols [5, 6, 9, 10, 11, 12]. Fig. 8 Fig. 11
that may lead to invalid C-RNTIs, the attackers still use all show illustrative results of our study. These figures show
C-RNTIs and IMSIs to generate requests to overload the the effectiveness of our attacks and the impact of the attacks
entities in E-UTRAN. Since attackers have collected all on normal users from different aspects.
C-RNTIs and the corresponding IMSIs in phase 1 and phase
2, eNodeB may transmit the requests to the MME. When
the MME received the request, it will generate an AIR
message in response to an RRCConeectionSetupComplete

continuously. Once CPU had enough time to deal with
requests in the buffer, the system returns to the normal
status gradually after 70 second. Therefore, the HSS/Auc is
compromised by large amount of requests generated by the
attackers. MME also exhausts storage resources and
computing resources for the HSS/Auc. Our Attack is
effective to achieve the expected results.

Fig. 7 Attack Process
In our study, we generate normal user requests whose
Fig. 9 Buffer Value in the MME
distribution follows Poisson Process. Attackers generate
500 requests per second. Attackers begin to flood the entity
at 30 second and finish the attack at 70 second. Besides, we
set 1024 as the capacity of the MME.

Fig. 10 Proportion of normal requests

Fig. 8 Round Trip Time
Fig. 8 shows the impact in UEs aspect. The Round Trip
Time (RTT) is the time that a request travels from a UE to
server and then back to the UE. RTT is a good indication on
whether the server can process a request on time. RTT
should be small (less than 10ms) when the E-UTRAN is not
under attack as shown in Fig. 8. Once the attackers begun to
generate requests, the RTT increases dramatically. The
value keeps rising until packet loss. When attackers stop
attacking, RTT decreases to the normal value in 15 seconds.
Fig. 11 CPU Performance
Fig. 9 Fig. 11 show the impact in other aspects. From
the MMEs view, we find that the attack may exhaust
resources and overload the entities. When the network is V. CONCLUSION
under attack, the buffer value does not stop increasing until We analyzed some threats in E-UTRAN in this article.
overflow. In addition, the proportion of normal requests Although E-UTRAN provides some mechanisms to make
(normal requests / all requests) dives in a short time as mobile networks more secure, we found out that additional
shown in Fig. 10. Meanwhile, the CPU rate stabilizes in a vulnerabilities in such networks still exist. Unprotected
high value. The idle time decreases and the user time transmission of RRC messages were used to launch DoS
increases when the attack is in progress as shown in Fig. 11. attacks. Transmission of IMSI in plain text without
CPU was mainly used to calculate Authentication Vectors confidentiality and integrity protection for security

command in early stage of a connection provides
information needed for such DoS attacks. C-RNTI
information in layer 1 gives attackers opportunities to track
UE over cells. Exploiting these vulnerabilities can realize
an efficient and effective DoS attack. Our illustrative
studies have shown that these vulnerabilities are vital and
should be solved to avoid these kinds of control-signals
DoS attacks.

This research is partly supported by Guangdong Science
Foundations fund with grant number 0072835122030305
and Industry-academic-research fund of Guangdong
Province and Ministry with grant number

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