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Mobile Subscriber Profile DataPrivacy Breach via 4GDiameter Interconnection

  • Nokia Bell Labs, Espoo, Finland
Mobile Subscriber Profile Data
Privacy Breach via 4G
Diameter Interconnection
Silke Holtmanns, Ian Oliver and Yoan Miche
Nokia Bell Labs, Security Research, Karakaari 3, 02610 Espoo, Finland
Corresponding Author
Received 08 September 2017;
Accepted 05 October 2018
The interconnection network (IPX) connects telecommunication networks
with each other on the globe. The IPX network enables features like voice
and data roaming with your mobile device while traveling. Designed as
a closed network it is now opening and unauthorized entities now misuse
the IPX network for their purposes. The majority of the IPX still runs the
Signalling System No 7 (SS7) protocol stack, while the more technically
advanced operators roll out and deploy Diameter based LTE roaming. SS7
is known to suffer from many attacks. The first attacks using the Diameter
protocol appeared. We will show how an attacker can breach the subscriber’s
privacy by deducting the subscriber profile from the Home Subscriber Service
(HSS) and use the obtained information. The subscriber profile contains all key
information related to the users’subscription e.g. location, billing information,
MSISDN etc. We will close with a recommendation how to prevent such an
Keywords: SS7, Diameter, IPX, security.
Journal of ICT, Vol. 6 3, 245–262. River Publishers
doi: 10.13052/jicts2245-800X.634
This is an Open Access publication. c
2018 the Author(s). All rights reserved.
246 S. Holtmanns et al.
List of Abbreviations:
3GPP 3rd Generation Partnership Project
AVP Attribute Value Pair
CSG Closed Subscriber Group
DEA Diameter Edge Agent
DoS Denial of Service
HLR Home Location Register
HSS Home Subscriber Service
Id Identity
IDA Insert Subscription Data Answer
IDR Insert Subscription Data Request
IMSI International Mobile Subscriber Identity
IPX Internetwork Packet Exchange/Interconnection
ITU International Telecommunication Union
LTE Long Term Evolution
MAP The Message Application Protocol
MDT Mobile Drive Test
MME Mobility Management Entity
MSC Mobile Switching Center
NMT Nordic Mobile Telephony
SGSN Serving GPRS Support Node
SM Short Message (commonly known as SMS)
SMSC Short Message Service Center
SRA Send Routing Information for SM Answer
SRR Send Routing Information for SM Request
SS7 Signalling System No 7
ULA Update Location Answer
ULR Update Location Request
1 Introduction
It is taken for granted that we can use our phone for data and calls when being
abroad and travelling. We rarely consider what happens in the background
when we switch on our phone after our arrival in another country.You actually
connect to a network that knows at that point of time nearly nothing about
you, still in the end you can make calls, receive text messages, access your
cloud data, e-mail and social networks and are being charged on your home-
network bill, even if the operator you connect you has never seen you before.
Mobile Subscriber Profile Data Privacy Breach via 4G 247
Figure 1 Simplified IPX Network.
Figure 2 Old NMT Advertisement from Siemens.
This all is possible because operator networks communicate through a private
signalling network, the Interconnection Network or IPX network. All network
operators are connected through it with each other, sometimes directly,
sometimes indirectly via service providers. There are hundreds of (mobile)
network operators in the world, so below there is very simplified view of
the network:
The IPX network is a private network and not the Internet. To understand
the security issues related to it, we go briefly into the evolution and history of
the IPX network. The first roaming network was the Nordic Mobile Telephone
Network (NMT) between Norway, Finland, Sweden and Denmark [1] in 1981.
248 S. Holtmanns et al.
At that time most network operators were state owned and there was trust
between the partners. The Nordic countries had a long history of cooperation
and therefore the main goal was to enable services for their users using a
closed network. They designed protocols and messages to serve that goal. The
Signalling System No. 7 (SS7) [2] is a network signalling protocol stack used
worldwide between network elements and between different types of operator
networks, service providers on the interconnection. It was standardised by the
International Telecommunication Union, Telecommunication Standardisation
Sector (ITU-T) more than 35 years ago and consists out of various protocol
layers, like the ISO-OSI stack, but not the same. At that point of time, security
was not the main design criteria, as the usage of SS7 was envisioned to be
used only in a closed network between trusted partners.
2 Background
2.1 SS7 Briefer
SS7 specifies the exchange of information over the signalling networks mainly
to enable the establishment of phone calls across networks i.e. to enable
roaming. Over the time the usage of the protocol has been extended to
accommodate many services. The Message Application Protocol (MAP) is
the most important application protocol in the SS7 stack. MAP is standardised
by the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) [3] offers a wide range of
additional features for enabling mobility, roaming, SMS, and billing.
Figure 3 SS7 Stack and comparison to ISO-OSI Model.
Source: [32].
Mobile Subscriber Profile Data Privacy Breach via 4G 249
The MAP protocol is currently the most used protocol for Interconnection
application messages, but the long term Long Term Evolution (LTE) replace-
ment Diameter is appearing for 4G and 5G Interconnection communication.
But LTE is not only more bandwidth on the radio link, it is also a major
evolution of the core network and the messages and protocols therein.
2.2 Diameter Background
Diameter is the evolution of the SS7 (and its IP variant SIGTRAN) and MAP
protocol that is used within and between the 4G LTE networks. LTE uses the
Diameter protocol for communication between the network elements inside a
network and between networks. In a Diameter based network architecture
all elements are connected via an IP interface. The network nodes use
either the newer the Diameter base protocol specified in IETF RFC 6733 [4]
or the one defined in RFC 3588 [5]. The 3GPP specifications that specifies
the telecommunication specific usages of the Diameter protocol has already
moved from RFC 3588 to RFC 6733, but of course in the deployments many
nodes still support the older version of the protocol. In Diameter each interface
has its own application interface specification which is defined separately in
a different 3GPP specification document and defines the application specific
additions to the base protocol.
Mobile network operators often connect directly only to very few of their
partners. To their other partners, they connect via interconnection service
provider. Therefore, a communication between two networks can traverse
many intermediate nodes in the interconnection network. Network operators,
also chose the route a message travels based on aspects like quality and costs,
this implies, that a route chosen today for an outbound roamer can be different
then the route chosen tomorrow. Below a simplified connection between two
LTE enabled networks:
Mobile network operators usually deploy a Diameter Edge Agent (DEA)
that resides on the border of their network and is the first contact point for
messages coming over the interconnection link. The underlying connection
channel terminates in the DEA and the network topology is “hidden” behind
the DEA. The most important nodes from security point of view are the Home
Subscriber Server (HSS) which holds the subscriber profile information and
the and Mobility Management Entity (MME) which takes care of the user’s
mobility (often combined with a Visited Location Register VLR). These
two are the key core network nodes for the users’ mobility and personal
data. 3GPP envisioned for those potentially untrusted interfaces over the
250 S. Holtmanns et al.
Figure 4 Connection between two LTE Networks.
Figure 5 Interconnection between LTE operators using diameter with NDS/IP.
interconnect to use IPSec or alternatively TLS (see TS 33.210 Network
Domain Security/IP [6]).
The practical issue is that even if IPSec is implemented in many core
network nodes, it is commonly not used. The reason for that are manifold. Since
this is an international network, the question of the trusted root certificate,
revocation list, key generation etc becomes a political one. In addition, there
are Interconnection Service Providers i.e. messages often traverse several
“hops” between the operators. And some operators just don’t have the financial
resources or expertise to secure their network communications. Beside one
needs to recognize, that in the beginning, there were no security costs, as the
network was fully closed and secure, and then “suddenly” potential security
Mobile Subscriber Profile Data Privacy Breach via 4G 251
costs are required and there is no clear return of investment for those. For any
operational team in an operator it is difficult to obtain financial and human
resources for this kind of extensions. A small group of experts identified a
potential vulnerability in exploitation of SS7 by entities that have unauthorized
access to the interconnection network was identified very early [30] and
3GPP standardization took measures to counter those threats by drafting MAP
Security (MAPSec) TS 33.200 [31], but that never found a wide deployment
base and took off.
The most commonly used diameter-based interface for roaming is the
S6a/S6d interface between HSS and MME as specified in 3GPP TS 29.272 [7].
Without it, there is no roaming possible, so switching it of is not an option.
Diameter is the core network protocol for LTE and is constantly extended.
Even if Diameter is a different protocol than the MAP protocol, the under-
lying functional requirements e.g. authenticating the user to set up a call etc
there are many similarities in the messages used for Diameter and the SS7
MAP protocol messages. Still, there is not a one-to-one mapping for each
MAP message to each Diameter command and vice versa. The 3GPP has
defined some basic degree of interworking between the SS7/MAP protocol and
Diameter in the technical report TR 29.805 [8] which is more of a technical
study character or in the technical specification TS 29.305 [9]. There exist
attacks which exploit this kind of interworking [10], but we will not go into
that topic in this article. The messages used in this article are ones that differ
to a large degree from their corresponding MAP counterparts.
3 Recent Security Research Results
The first widely publicly known attack was presented in 2008 by Tobias
Engel [11] and consisted out of a coarse location tracking attack on MSC
or country level. It was a SS7 MAP based attack. It was then very quiet up to
2014, when a string of major SS7 attacks were published and their practical
feasibility demonstrated:
Location Tracking [12–14, 27]
Eavesdropping [13, 14]
SMS interception [13, 14]
Fraud [13, 14]
Denial of Service [13, 14]
Credential theft [14]
Data session hijacking [15, 16]
Unblocking stolen phone [17]
252 S. Holtmanns et al.
One-time password theft and account takeover for Telegram, Facebook,
Whatsapp [18, 19]
Recently the first interconnection vulnerabilities were published for the 4G
diameter protocol.
Location tracking [20]
Denial of Service [21]
SMS interception [22]
There is a constant evolution and fine tuning of those attacks ongoing
e.g. in [28] and [29] many of the above attacks were refined and the Insert
Subscriber Data command features exploited to modify and extract data. This
article can be seen in the spirit of the further refinements and extensions of
those attacks, where we will work out the details of [29].
The main obstacle for an attacker is to gain access to the closed and
private Interconnection network. But the legal rules for network operators for
renting out access to the interconnection to service providers differ between
countries, also some nodes are attached and visible on the internet for example
using Therefore, attacker with sufficient technical skills or financial
resources have found ways to breach the privacy of the network. Since this
is a worldwide problem of many different players, standardization of security
is of uttermost importance to obtain a feasible security system. The GSMA
Association has provided their members with a set of protection measures for
SS7 and issued in summer 2017 diameter interconnection security rules to
help their members countering this threat.
4 Mobile Subscriber Profile Attack
We have to make some assumption on the network configurations. Those
assumptions, even if they seem to be quite generous, can be found to in many
real-world network deployments and are quite common. The first assumption
is that the network does not have any filtering functionalities or a diameter
firewall deployed at the edge of the network, typically represented by a
Diameter Edge Agent (DEA). Secondly, that the attacker is in possession of the
phone number i.e. the MSISDN and has access to the Interconnection network.
4.1 IMSI Retrieval
The first step for an attacker is to obtain the user’s International Mobile
Subscriber Identity (IMSI). The IMSI is the key subscription identifier inside
the core network, not the MSISDN.
Mobile Subscriber Profile Data Privacy Breach via 4G 253
Figure 6 IMSI Retrieval using SMSC impersonation.
There are several ways of doing that. One can set up a false base station
and just call all devices in the area to send them their IMSI. Even if 3GPP is
currently studying how to protect the IMSI, we can assume that this will be
a common way to obtain the IMSI for many years to come. Alternatively, a
WIFI access point which is able to issue a EAP-SIM call to the device. We will
focus on how to obtain the IMSI via the Interconnection, as we assume that
the attacker does not want to travel to his victim. The attacker impersonates a
SMSC Short Message Service Center i.e. he claims to have a SMS for a user
and he wants to deliver it and needs therefore the “contact details” as he is
only having the phone number (MSISDN). This is a quite common and valid
roaming scenario, where a user sends a SMS to a user from another network.
For that purpose, the attacker sends a Send Routing Information For SM
Request (called SRR) to the Home Subscriber Server (HSS) of the user. The
message is send not directly to the HSS, but to the DEA of the home operator of
this user. This message contains the MSISDN (phone number) of the user. The
DEA relays the SRR message to the HSS (so not to reveal the HSS address)
and the HSS will provide via the DEA in a Send Routing Information For SM
Answer (SRA) the IMSI and the serving nodes for the user i.e. serving MME
and SGSN.
4.2 Subscriber Profile Retrieval
The attacker is now in possession of the IMSI of the user, the serving MME
and SGSN. It should be noted, that between the IMSI acquisition and the actual
254 S. Holtmanns et al.
Figure 7 Profile extraction using ULR.
attacks might elapse a large time. The IMSI is embedded into the users UICC
card (commonly called SIM card) and does not change during the lifetime of
the card, only with replacement of the card it changes.
For the subscriber profile retrieval, the attacker performs a location update
i.e. the attacker claims, that this user has “landed” in his network, this is
a typical roaming scenario. For this he makes a diameter Location Update
Request (ULR) over the S6a interface according to 3GPP TS 29.272 [7]. In
this location update request he does NOT set the ULR-Flag “Skip subscriber
data”, in a normal roaming scenario this indicates to the HSS that the MME
requests a fresh copy of the subscriber profile for synchronization purposes.
The HSS then send in an update location answer (ULA). This answer then
contains the requested subscriber profile.
We will later on elaborate new cases what this subscriber profile contains
and what it implies if an attacker gets hold of the subscriber profile. In a
nutshell, it described the key attributes for a subscription. We assume, that once
an attacker holds a complete subscriber profile of a user of one operators he can
deduct the structure of the profile and by that figure out, what are “nice” items
to modify for another subscription. Each operator supports different services
for his users and has different features deployed therefore each subscriber
profile looks somewhat different.
A subtle attacker would reset the MME back (assuming again that the edge
does not properly differentiate between internal and external messages). Even
if not strictly needed for the profile extraction and modification, it helps the
attacker to stay unnoticed.
Mobile Subscriber Profile Data Privacy Breach via 4G 255
Figure 8 Setting back the MME entry to “old home MME”.
4.3 Subscriber Profile Modification
We assume that the attacker has the IMSI of a subscriber and wants to modify
the subscriber data stored in the MME. A typical scenario would be that he
wants to change the settings so that he has more rights and can use more
services or become member of a closed subscriber group. He can also set
for another subscription the Proximity Service (ProSe) discovery settings
differently and by that the target user can then be traced. In either case, the
mechanism is the same. There are two “flavours” to that attack. If the user is
roaming, then the attack has high chances of succeeding. The attacker would
impersonate the Home-HSS, but due to roaming the visited network would
only see the DEA address of the home net-work (which can be spoofed by
setting the origin realm and origin host), as the message answer does not really
need to go through it is no issue to spoof the origin. The DEA address can
be found from IR.21 documents on the internet or brute forcing the operator
The other flavour is, if the attacker tries to modify the profile of the user
while the user is in his home network. There the attacker would need to know
the address of the home-HSS (potentially again from IR.21), but that address is
“less public” then for example a DEA address. But on the other hand operators
tend to use ranges of address blocks for their nodes, so a brute force try-and-
error may yield the desired result. Also, the network would not even have
the lowest of all checks i.e. it does not check, if a message arrives on the
interconnection edge which claims to come from an internal node. Therefore,
256 S. Holtmanns et al.
Figure 9 Subscription Profile Placement in MME.
the attack is considered harder, when the target user is not roaming. The
modified profile would stay active until the MME synchronizes again with the
HSS and indicates that it would need a fresh profile.
5 Subscriber Profile
We saw how an attacker can extract a subscriber profile from an HSS and places
a potentially modified profile into the MME. The Subscriber Data Attribute
Value Pair (AVP) is of type grouped, which means, there are many “subitems”,
some of them are in turn also of type grouped. Many of those items can be used
for DoS against the user, basically changing the settings to something strange,
so that the user would not have a properly working access. Since a simple
DoS is possible using a Purge or Cancel Location message [21] or [28], we
assume that the attacker had a more sophisticated attack in mind like changing
the profile to obtain some fraud or similar things. The following items could
be interesting for an attacker to modify. It should be noted, that some of them
are features, that are quite new and therefore not commonly deployed yet.
Closed Subscriber Groups (CSG) are intended to be used for groups which
require special security like fire brigade, rescue workers, police or similar. If
in the update location the fake MME includes an equivalent PLMN id list, the
HSS returns not only the subscriber data but also the Closed Subscriber Group
List for that IMSI [7] In [7] it is described how using a IDR
command with CSG replaces the existing Closed Subscription Data stored in
Mobile Subscriber Profile Data Privacy Breach via 4G 257
the MME. I.e. an attacker may exploit this to add himself to a closed group
by adding the CSG-Id.
Proximity Security (ProSe) is a security concept for local means of commu-
nication and intended for public services usage (e.g. governments). The ProSe
Subscription Data is also part of the Subscription Data. The ProSe Subscription
Data contains sub-AVPs [7] and 3GPP TS 29.344 [23] that describe how a
device can be discovered locally i.e. could be potentially misused for local
Mobile Drive Test (MDT) was designed as method to get data from the
terminal to discover coverage holes in a network. For this a consent was
introduced, as it basically allows also close tracking of the user. The MDT-
User-Consent is part of the subscription data [24] TS 32.422. The flag
modification might be combined with another attack.
MSISDN i.e. phone number is also part of the subscriber profile. The effects
of changing this entry in the MSISDN needs still further study, but potentially
poses quite a fraud and impersonation risk. Those risks need to be validated
in detail.
Access Point Node (APN) configuration is used for data access and the
impacts of changing that to another address (beside the obvious DoS if changed
to a non-valid address) need to be studied further.
The subscription data also contains the charging characteristics [7] and TS
29.061 [25]. The modification of those may hinder proper charging of the user
and result in a potential fraud scenario.
6 Protection Measures
In a normal roaming case, the visited MME would need to obtain some
subscription information, but since not all fields that are mentioned in the
subscriber profile are need in a roaming case a firewall can filter the outgoing
traffic to suppress those not needed AVPs e.g. closed subscriber group etc.
Another simple method is to validate the authenticity of the request. Is
this an internal request arriving at the edge? Is this MME address really
belonging to a roaming partner and is the same as usual? Can the outbound
user really travel that distance since the last location update? The MME
should not accept IDR messages for its own subscriber coming from the
DEA. Of course, the long-term goal should be to really set-up an IPSec based
secure communication with the partners, but there are many non-technical
258 S. Holtmanns et al.
obstacles on that road. This kind of knowledge needs to be implemented in a
Signalling aware firewall at the edge of the network. The GSMA organization
established a working group and is driving to identify attack vectors and related
countermeasures for 4G and 5G Interconnection Security to stop these kind
of attacks. This work is also contributed to this effort.
This work has been supported by the finish DIMECC CyberTrust Project and
the EU Horizon 2020 project SCOTT Secure Connectable Trusted Things.
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Mobile Subscriber Profile Data Privacy Breach via 4G 261
Silke Holtmanns is a security expert at Nokia Bell Labs and research new
attack vectors and mitigation approaches. She holds a PhD in Mathematics
and her current research area combines data analytics, penetration testing
and privacy. The creation of new and the investigation of existing security
attacks using SS7, Diameter and GTP protocols via the Interconnect lead to
new countermeasures for 4G/5G networks. She is also actively supporting the
evolution of 5G intereconnection security in 3GPP. The identfied countermea-
sures using techniques combine monitoring, filtering, and advanced protection
with machine learning. As an expert on existing and future attack patterns
for interconnection security, she provides advice to our company, customers,
standard boards, and regional and national regulating governmental bodies
e.g. US FCC or EU ENISA. Recently, she started investigating potential risk
areas of 5G, which has a different architecture and design concept compared
to the previous releases.
She serves as a regular organizer and editor for workshops and special
issues. She has over 18 years experience in mobile security research and
standardization with strong focus on 3GPP security and GSMA. She is
rapporteur of ten 3GPP specifications and editor of the GSMAInterconnection
Diameter Signalling Protection document.
Ian Oliver works for Nokia Bell Labs as a senior security researcher
specialising in high-integrity and trusted Network Function Virtualisation,
and on occasion the more theoretical underpinnings of privacy and privacy
262 S. Holtmanns et al.
engineering. He also holds a Research Fellow position at the University of
Brighton working with the Visual Modelling Group on diagrammatic forms
of reasoning and semantics.
Prior to that he worked as the privacy officer for Nokia Services and
for eleven years at Nokia Research Centre working with Semantic Web,
UML, formal methods and hardware-software co-design. He has also worked
at Helsinki University of Technology and Aalto University teaching formal
methods and modelling with UML. He holds over 40 patents in areas such as
The Internet of Things, semantic technologies and privacy, as well as numerous
papers in these areas. He is the author of the book: Privacy Engineering – A
Data Flow and Ontological Approach. (
Ian lives in Sipoo, Finland with his wife, two children, dog and cat.
Yoan Miche was born in 1983 in France. He received an Engineer’s Degree
from Institut National Polytechnique de Grenoble (INPG, France), and more
specifically from TELECOM, INPG, on September 2006. He also graduated
with a Master’s Degree in Signal, Image, Speak and Telecom from ENSERG,
INPG, at the same time. He has worked in the Information and Computer
Science (ICS) lab of Aalto University as a postdoc for 4 years, after obtaining
his D.Sc. from INPG (France) and Aalto University (Finland). He is currently
a Cybersecurity Researcher at Nokia Bell Labs, Finland.
In the 1970s, roaming interconnections for cellular networks were designed for a few trusted parties. Hence, security was not a major concern. Today, the SS7 (Signaling System no. 7) solution that is several decades old is still used for many roaming interconnections. SS7 has been proven vulnerable to serious threats due to deregulation, expansion, and convergence with IP-based Long Term Evolution (LTE) networks. The limitations of the SS7 network that it is unable to check the subscriber’s authentic location, verify their identity and filter illegitimate messages, makes the system vulnerable to attacks. Adversaries taking advantage of these shortcomings can inflict threats such as interception of calls and text messages, subscriber tracking and denial of service attacks. Although LTE and Diameter signaling protocols promise enhanced security keeping up with the latest attack vectors, their inherent flaws related to roaming interconnections are still there and continue to make the networks vulnerable. Hence, a highly secure signaling network is required to protect the operators and the subscribers from a diverse range of security attacks. SS7 network protocol layers, such as signaling connection control part (SCCP), transaction capabilities application part (TCAP), and global system for mobile Communications – mobile application part (GSM MAP), manage connectivity between networks and subscribers. An analysis of the parameters of these layers may provide a clear insight into any anomalies present. Unfortunately, these parameters are not validated and verified at the network’s edge. The major contribution of this research is a methodology for detecting anomalies by checking malformed parameters and intra-layer parameter discrepancies at the abovementioned protocol layers. This paper provides an insight into the severity of SS7 network security vulnerabilities. Furthermore, it provides a proof of concept for the analysis of SS7 network traffic using the Wireshark packet capture tool and the Snort intrusion detection system (IDS) capable of detecting malicious traffic patterns.
Conference Paper
The interconnection network (IPX) connects telecommunication networks with each other. The IPX network enables features like roaming and data access while traveling. Designed as a closed network it is now opening up and unauthorized entities now misuse the IPX network for their purposes. The majority of the IPX still runs the Signaling System No. 7 (SS7) protocol stack, while the more advanced operators now turn towards Diameter based LTE roaming. SS7 is known to suffer from many attacks. The first attacks for Diameter are known. In this article, we will show how an attacker can deduct a subscriber profile from the Home Subscriber Service (HSS). The subscriber profile contains all key information related to the users’ subscription e.g. location, billing information etc. We will close with a recommendation how to prevent such an attack.
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Diameter Base Protocol
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